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'Songcatcher' captures the richness of folk culture

Friday, July 27, 2001

By Barry Paris, Post-Gazette Movie Critic

Many scientific occupations involve the finding or catching of things -- birds, butterflies, bones. What, then, does an ethnomusicologist do? She catches songs.


RATING: PG-13 for brief nudity and mild sexual themes

STARRING: Janet McTeer, Jane Adams, Aidan Quinn, Pat Carroll, Emmy Rossum

DIRECTOR: Maggie Greenwald

Critic's call: 3 1/2 stars


In this beautiful film, written and directed by Maggie Greenwald and playing at the Denis and Manor theaters, our "Songcatcher" of the year 1907 is Dr. Lily Penleric (Janet McTeer). She's a brilliant North Carolina music scholar, passed over for promotion in favor of -- no big surprise -- a man. In a fit of pique, she stomps out of academia to cool off for a while high up in the Appalachians, where her sister Elna (Jane Adams) and a friend run a little one-room schoolhouse.

Lily is looking for some solitude and a place to lick her wounds, but what she finds there is something much more valuable: the folk music of "ignorant" mountain folks, perfectly preserved in a vocal time capsule, just as it sounded when their great-grandmas and 'pas brought it over from the hills of England and Ireland. Armed with her state-of-the-art Edison disk-recording machine, Lily sets about catching every tune she can, with the alternating help and hindrance of the natives. Sweet-voiced young Deladis (Emmy Rossum) is her first source and steadfast assistant. But crusty old Viney (Pat Carroll) turns out to be the real grandmotherlode of this haunting mountain music.

In addition to her songs, Granny Viney has a grandson that Lily is interested in -- Tom Bledsoe, wonderfully played by Aidan Quinn. He's a banjo and dobro musician himself. But is he a good guy or bad guy? In credit to the subtlety of "Songcatcher's" script, it takes Lily (and us) a while to learn the answer.

In the process, she also will learn a few things about childbirth, her sister's sexual preferences and the difference in values between these isolated, dirt-poor illiterates up above and the educated "outlanders" who want to cash in on their music (and their coal deposits) down below.

The music throughout "Songcatcher" is nothing short of phenomenal, especially such traditional (now-famous) ballads as "Barbara Allen," "I Wish I Was a Single Girl Again" and that chilling "Conversation With Death." Any listener with a heart will be hypnotized by the mournfully distinctive glottal-yodel up-stitch twang at the end of every line. Iris Dement and Hazel Dickens, as well as the amazingly talented Rossum, sing superb examples of this type. And you'll just downright enjoy the hell out of a fab cameo appearance by Taj Mahal, playing his own "Pickin' That Thang" with the laid-back local postmaster.

Director Greenwald is tremendously respectful of the music, the characters and the traditions by which African banjos blended with European fiddles to sink the roots of virtually all American folk-musical forms, from "hillbilly" and bluegrass to country -- from Woody Guthrie and Elvis.

The dances, no less than the music, were similarly passed down and culminate, in the film, in a great bittersweet clogging (or "flatfooting") hoedown scene full of emotional and sexual fire as well as the magic of rarely heard dobros and dulcimers.

It resembles, at different times, elements of "The Piano," "Deliverance" and "Buena Vista Social Club." But it is its own original thing, full of fine cinematography and even finer acting, successfully catching souls along with songs.

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