|By Mira Harber
Whatever else you may think of this movie, without a doubt, the star of
is the music. As the film starts, Dr. Lily Penleric (Janet McTeer) - a
very emancipated musicologist - sings a famous English folk tune, Barbara
Allen, to a class of students (for those of you old movie fans, you’ll
recognize Barbara Allen as the music that was playing as old Scrooge, Alastair
Sims, came to his senses!).
The time is 1910, and Lily is denied tenure at her university, once again,
because she is a woman. She leaves in disgust and decides to visit her
sister Elna (Jane Adams) in the isolated Appalachian Mountains. What she
discovers there leaves her awestruck.
When we think of people living in Appalachia, what is the picture that
we have in our minds? Who are these people, and how do they live? Here
comes a surprise; Music plays an incredibly important part in the lives
of these people. They are not the incredibly ignorant, totally culture-less,
savages that people from the ‘outside’ imagine. Their lives may be simple,
hard and even rough, but their lives are also intertwined with music &
nature. Music is not something foreign, that other people perform and that
they listen to. Oh no, music is part of the very fabric of their lives.
When Lily arrives in the isolated Appalachian mountain village where her
sister teaches school and lives, she meets a gorgeous young orphan Deladis
Slocumb (Emmy Rossum). She lives at the school and sings like an absolute
angel in an incredibly powerful and pure voice. In fact, she is singing
the same song that we heard at the beginning of the film, but it is very,
very different. What she is singing is music that has remained virtually
unchanged and pure for over 200 years - when the original English arrived
in the Appalachian hills.
What a discovery! Lily is
enraptured and now she is on a mission. She travels the depth and breadth
of the local villages, over seemingly unsurpassable trails and paths (no
paved roads here) and records the songs and voices of these Appalachian
The phonograph was modern technology in 1910, and Lily and her assistants
lug all her equipment high and low while she gathers the folk tunes, records
the amazing singers, and notates what they are singing for publication
in a book she plans to write about her incredible discovery.
Of course there is some initial resistance to her plans, and yes, some
of the people living in those hills are savages, but Lily’s heart is won
by the gruff, but good-hearted mountain man (played beautifully by Aidan
Quinn). Songcatcher at times comes perilously close to predictable,
syrupy sweet, clichéd melodrama.
An evil coal-mining representative schemes to rob the locals of their land
under the guise of embracing the modern. The loving lesbians are discovered
frolicking in the hills by two local yabos and an errant husband pays the
price for his misdeeds.
Lily chafes at the restrictions placed on her as a woman, and she is in
many ways simply too modern for this story. She is a little too frosty
and cerebral for my tastes, but she does come very close to achieving her
Some of the supporting characters are wonderfully cast, particularly the
gun-toting old woman, Viney Butler (Pat Carroll) and the young girl, Deladis
Slocumb with the amazing voice.
A note of warning: one of
the sub-plots involves two lesbian lovers in a somewhat graphic sexual
scene and there is also a really intense scene of childbirth, which is
certainly not for the faint-hearted.
Even if you have no interest in music of this sort, I guarantee you that
once you see this movie you will want to run out and buy the CD - the music
really is the star. It is beautiful and simple music that demands another