One of the best films this year is Songcatcher, a movie about the heart and soul of American music. The year is 1907 and Lilly Penleric (Janet McTeer) is a doctor of music, struggling to move ahead in the male dominated academic world. Passed over yet again for a university promotion, Lilly sets off to visit her sister, Elna, who is one of two teachers in a remote town in the Appalachian mountains.
Once there, Lilly discovers the ancient form of Scots-Irish ballads preserved by residents, sung by just about everyone in the town to celebrate all aspects of life. In fact, everyone, it seems, has a song inside of them, the words and the music passed on from generation to generation, and none of these songs ever yet collected. Lilly knows that collecting these ballads in their purest forms will certainly prove to be the key to her academic success.
But recording and collecting their haunting songs comes with a price. Lilly finds herself inexpicably drawn into their lives beginning with that of Viney Butler, the shotgun-toting grandmother and local expert played by Pat Carroll. (You can't mistake her voice - she is the voice of the Evil Sea Witch in The Little Mermaid!) Then there's her son Tom, the local musician who is convinced that Lilly is out to exploit his people for her own benefit. Her own moral conventions are further challenged by her sister's love for a fellow teacher in the small school.
Drawn into their lives, Lilly finds herself witness to the mountain people's struggles with the new industrial world, in the form of greedy coal companies which pose a threat to the preservation to their own culture as well as the approaching modernism of the plains. When their secrets are revealed, Lilly finds herself face to face with her own passions and an emotional awakening that leaves her with a difficult choice to make.
Writer and director Maggie Greenwald shows us the hidden world of the mountain people -- their passions, struggles and their music. Especially their music. One can easily recognize the joyful notes of a jig and when the party begins and the flat plywood floor is flung onto the ground, you know you're in for a wild good time as residents and Lilly herself dance.
Greenwald's characters are filled with strength and substance, each one a true jewel to this exquisite film. Janet McTeer, last seen in Tumbleweeds, portrays a resilient woman discovering not just the music of the mountains, but the music of her own heart as well. Aidan Quinn plays Tom, the musician who accuses her of exploiting the locals.
One of the best discoveries in this film is the operatic singer Emmy Rossum, who plays the orphan Deladis Slocumb. Only fourteen, Songcatcher is Rossum's screen debut, and her performance ensures that she's a star on the rise. When I interviewed her in October, I was shocked to find out that she just turned 14 years old, and had already shared the stage with the likes of Luciano Pavarotti and Placido Domingo. She recently recorded a duet with country singer Dolly Parton who, after seeing Songcatcher, wrote a song especially for the movie.
Special Jury Prize-winner for Outstanding Ensemble Performance at this year's Sundance Film Festival, Songcatcher features original vocal performances by the cast as well as cameo appearances by Iris Dement, Hazel Dickens, and blues legend Taj Mahal.
So if you're a fan of Irish/Scottish music in its purest form as it came about in America, Songcatcher is the movie for you. I enjoyed it and was disappointed with its release was moved from December 2000 to March 2001. But if you have a chance to see it for free at your local museum, run and have a great time. You'll find yourself humming a tune or two long after the movie is over.
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