Songcatcher has a wonderful premise: near the turn of the century, an ethnomusicologist visits her sister, a teacher running a school in rural Appalachia. A specialist in the folk balladry of England, she’s shocked to hear these mountain people singing the very songs she studies, ancient songs no one realized were still current in the United States. (The geographic isolation of these communities had the cultural benefit of preserving the folk traditions they carried over with them from Britain generations before.) Realizing that she’s stumbled into her life’s work, she throws herself into recording and notating the local variations and developments of this music.
As long as it sticks to music, Songcatcher is a unique and occasionally stunning film. Writer/director Maggie Greenwald is willing to suspend her narrative for minutes at a time in order to spotlight a song, and these moments – especially a baying, mournful solo turn by Iris Dement – are everything one could hope for. They’re all too rare, however, since the film invests far more energy into what soon reveals itself to be a rambling, anachronistic tale of self-actualization that’s by turns hackneyed and cloying.
Janet McTeer plays the musicologist Lily Penleric. As the film opens, she’s been passed up for promotion yet again at her university. Embittered and hostile, she goes to visit her sister Elna (Jane Adams), a schoolmarm who’s dedicated her career to helping the Appalachians move beyond their poverty. Elna is as giving and sweet as Lily is severe and driven. She’s used to draw a blunt contrast, and the movie plays out exactly as you’d expect: living with the simple country folk teaches the citified, haughty, selfish Lily to be a better woman.
The film is plotted with a thudding, deliberate obviousness, with every scene crafted to make exactly one point with deadening explicitness. McTeer maneuvers around this airless scenario, creating through the tiniest gestures – a glance, a sigh – a sense of life and a richness of emotion the story fails to tap.
Whenever no one is singing, the film feels like a tastefully mounted, competently executed and hopelessly reverent Hallmark special. Greenwald has cloaked the film in good taste, to the point where even the violence and sex that drive the final third are rendered so politely that the priggish Lily herself might have directed the scenes. There are no bad performances in the film, though most of the cast are straitjacketed by their roles. They’re playing sentimental types (Aidan Quinn is a brooding mountain man, Emmy Rossum an innocent orphan) rather than characters. Enrique Chediak’s cinematography is lush and intelligent, using the deep greens and diffuse light of the mountain exteriors to counterpoint the squalor of the shacks.
Yet for all the didactic clumsiness of her story, Greenwald understands the richness and uncanny beauty of Appalachian music. It’s unfortunate but hardly surprising that so many Americans dismiss our folk music as unsophisticated or, worse yet, deadly dull.We’re force-fed these tunes in elementary school, where we’re told that, like liver or castor oil, they’re good for us. Add to that the self-righteous, nostalgic piety of so much of what gets called folk music today, and one can see why the traditions are disappearing. Greenwald strives to make us go beyond our preconceptions and really hear this music, to make it as strange and resonant for us as it is for her characters.
In the film’s best scene, the villain – a local who’s gone to college and returned as henchman for the mining company that’s driving farmers from their land – shows up at a community dance, only to be beaten up. His retreat takes a bizarre turn when he faces off his attacker and sings a verse of the ballad "Conversation with Death" in a clear, piercing tenor. It’s a truly frightening moment, because it defies understanding. The song is puzzling, swapping from line to line between the voice of death and the pleas of a man desperate for another year of life. Sung at this moment by this character, it’s simultaneously a thrown gauntlet and an admission of defeat.
He staggers off, and one of the crowd who’d watched his outburst takes up the next verse. The gleeful risk of the last singer is gone now, and the song reveals another side: from this man’s throat, it’s an expression of flat, disaffected despair. He finishes, and a third person takes it up, and its meaning shifts yet again. It’s a transcendent scene, and the film’s most convincing demonstration of the power of the folk traditions it sets out to honor. This simple, ancient tune brims with contradiction and paradox, philosophic insight and pleasure. Songcatcher is too pat to ever approach the song’s complexity, but it is a measure of Greenwald’s intelligence that, for the length of the scene, she’s willing to give her film up to its mystery.