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IN SHORT: An (almost completely) extraordinary film. [Rated PG-13 for
A bit of historical fact first: In the Depression Era 1930s, a man named John Hammond lugged a disc recorder into the Appalachian "wilderness," and then farther west, to record the music of the people who lived there. Hammond, later in his career would be the man who "discovered"and signed Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen to record contracts. Three decades earlier, circa 1908, a woman named Olive Dame Campbell accompanied her minister husband into the mountains and was astonished by the music she heard. She transcribed the "native" songs she heard. When published a decade later, by British musicologist Cecil J. Sharp, they became best sellers.
Writer/Director Maggie Greenwald started with some of the fact -- Campbell's tale -- and uses some of its elements to bolster several love stories, a couple of culture clashes and a proto-feminist character whose trials will ring true for those of us with modern mentalities. Sorry to have sprung the "f" word on you (sic); Songcatcher is not in any way a preachy feminist diatribe. Men ran the world in 1907, the setting of this film, and even accomplished women like musicologist Lily Penleric, Ph.D (Janet McTeer) can not get respect. Well published and with a long track record as an Associate Professor at a prominent University, Penleric has been passed over for a full professorship again and again and again by the all male board which makes the appointments. As our film begins, Lily discovers that Professor Wallace Aldrich (Michael Goodwin), the one man on the board she thought would take her side, has betrayed her and that a prominent English scholar, Dr. Cyrus Whittle (Steven Sutherland) would receive the next available position. Lily swears to get as far away from the University as possible.
Again, no preaching or rhetoric. Just the action of an intelligent woman who has been professionally and emotionally wronged. A plot point which should prove sympathetic to any man or woman who has ever been screwed over for a promotion. As for that "as far away as possible,"that would be Bear Creek, North Carolina, where Lily's sister Elna (Jane Adams) has opened a school with another marm, Harriet Tolliver (E. Katherine Kerr). Bear Creek is not so much a town as a Appalachian mountain where descendants of English and Scottish settlers have lived for two centuries. The mountain is rugged. Tough to get to. Tough to navigate. Self-sustaining and supporting. A place where all of its residents are born on the mountain, live on the mountain, die on the mountain. The ones that did leave the mountain, to fight in the Spanish-American War, came back "different," according to Vinie Butler (Pat Carroll). She should know. One of 'em is her grandson. But we're getting ahead of ourselves.
Also at the school is orphan Deladis Slocumb (Emmy Rossum) who, the first evening of Lily's arrival, sings some songs that her granny had taught her. Lily is astonished to discover that these songs are identical to the "lost" English ballads whose discovery Whittle has built his career upon. Lily has found, on this mountain, a repository of dozens of songs in an almost pure form -- sung solo and acapella, passed down from generation to generation. From that point on, Lily gets back to work, to scientifically collect the songs both on paper and on those newfangled Edison phonograph cylinders.
The mountain doesn't give it up willingly. Most go p'shaw at the idea that their songs are worth collecting, or even getting paid or credit for. Vinie's grandson Tom Bledsoe (Aidan Quinn) calls it as he sees it. Exploitation. Vinie puts her boy in his place right quick -- she turned down the cash -- but this clash of city vs. mountain, intellectual vs. mountain man provides a good deal of conflict. Even when you know what must happen, it doesn't happen with violins squealing and a big "the end"credit. Songcatcher is too intelligent and too well written a movie to diss your intellects with stuff you've seen too many times.
As well, Greenwald doesn't sit quietly and let a main story and a back story play out, which is about all you get in "modern time" flicks, if you're lucky. Every character in the main ensemble -- McTeer and Quinn, Adams and Kerr, Rossum and her potential beau Fate (Greg Russell Cook) -- does absolutely note perfect work. And their world is colored by small appearances by a fire breathing preacher, one or two moonshine swillers, and the every day clash of cultures and habits that fit this City Mouse in the Country tale.
McTeer and Carroll should get nominations if Songcatcher is remembered at the end of the year. Aidan Quinn sat for CrankyCritic® StarTalk. Do what you must to find this most intelligent, most wonderful film.
Oh, Taj Mahal does a number in it, too. If you know the music, and we were in that biz for a number of years, his one scene is worth the price of the ticket. Combined with all the other performances, some with banjo or guitar or dulcimer accompaniment plus Emmylou Harris' rendition of a song which is the backbone of the story over the end credits number, Songcatcher is also a CD to be purchased. Samples are on their website.
On average, a first run movie ticket will run you Eight Bucks. Were Cranky able to set his own price to Songcatcher, he would have paid . . .
Why then, you might ask, is there not a near perfect rating above? We didn't like a very small bit of validation that takes place at the very end of the film. We can't tell you what that means without spilling it, though we will blame a small cynical streak that runs deep down. We don't always need to see every "i" dotted and "t" crossed, completing every possible story fragment.
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