"This is a beautiful and unusual film, made even more so by its joyous celebration of folk music. Beautifully nuanced, well paced, and highly absorbing, this haunting film is an absolute gem. It is no wonder that it won the 2000 Sundance Film Festival Special Jury Award for Outstanding Ensemble Performance. The performances in this film are simply stellar and worthy of recognition.
The year is 1907, and the highly independent and intelligent Dr. Lily Penleric (Janet McTeer), a noted musicologist, has once again been passed over for promotion by the college at which she teaches. Angry, she decides to pull up stakes and go to visit her sister, Elna (Jane Adams), who is one of two women teaching at a settlement school in the Appalachian Mountains of North Carolina.
When Janet arrives, she hears one of her sister's helpers, Deladis (Emma Rossum), singing an old folk song that she recognizes. It is being sung in a way that she has never before heard it sung. Upon discovering that the song was handed down generationally in this insular community, she realizes that she may actually be hearing the song as it may originally have been intended to be sung. Excited by her discovery, she sets about capturing as many songs as she can from these fiercely proud, mountain people. In effect, she is memorializing a rich, oral, musical history.
Her project takes Janet on a voyage of self-discovery, both personal and professional. Along the way, she becomes immersed in the the lives and traditions of these mountain people, realizing what an integral part music plays in their lives. While poor in terms of creature comforts and leading a harsh, hardscrabble sort of life, these mountain folks have a culturally rich, oral tradition and are a veritable treasure trove of old songs.
While catching the music and lyrics of these old songs for posterity and wider appreciation, notating her discovery of these songs for a book that she hopes to write, Dr. Penleric makes the acquaintance of a number of mountain men and women, including a tough old bird, Viney Butler (Pat Carroll). This leads to meeting with Viney's suspicious but intelligent, talented, and good looking grandson, Tom Bledsoe (Aidan Quinn), with whom she ultimately developes a passionate relationship that correlates nicely to her passion for music.
A number of other subplots are woven throughout this film. One involves her sister, Elna, who becomes involved with a love that dare not speak its name. There is also a love triangle between two of the mountain woman and the husband of one of them. Young love and coming of age are also themes that are touched upon. Meanwhile, a mining company seeks to buy out the land from under these people for a mere pittance. All of these subplots serve to illustrate the often harsh reality of life in the mountains. The only problem that I found was with the subplot involving Elna and her lover, Harriet, in terms of the complacency that surrounds what ultimately happens to Harriet. It was a most disturbing resolution that did not ring altogether true. Still, the overall strength of the film is such that it overcomes this incongruity.
Janet McTeer gives a no nonsense performance, and the way that the music seems to transfix and transform her is a joy to behold. Jane Adams, as Elna, gives an exquisitely beautiful and sensitive performance, as does E. Katherine Kerr in the role of Harriet, the settlement school teacher with whom Elna is involved. Aidan Quinn gives an intelligent and thoughtful performance as a mountain man who has been to the outside world and found it wanting. Pat Carroll is sensational as Viney Butler, the mountain woman who takes the vicissitudes of life in stride and wears many hats: mother, grandmother, midwife, musician, singer, and oral historian. Emma Rossum, however, is positively radiant as the young, fresh faced, mountain lass with a smile and voice that will tear your heart apart. She is a wonderful, young performer with operatic training and the ability to sing like Dolly Parton. What a find!
Cameo appearances by Taj Mahal, Iris Dement, and others serve to further enrich this film. The music and songs are played and sung live, which makes them resonate with authenticity and adds a vibrancy that might otherwise be lost. The folk dancing is a joy to watch, as the mountain people gather around for a jamboree. The film, shot on location, captures all the physical beauty of the terrain, as well as the rusticity and harshness of life in the mountains. This is simply a great film that is well worth having in one's personal collection.
The DVD is first rate, providing a clear, quality picture and great sound. It offers a wonderful commentary with the director, Maggie Greenwald, that explains the underpinnings of the film. There is also an interesting feature on the making of the film. All in all, it is a must have DVD for music lovers, as well as for those who simply enjoy a well made and beautifully acted film. Bravo!"
A Must for the Study of Southern Culture.
Lawyeraau | 07/22/2001
(5 out of 5 stars)
"To preserve Southern culture is to preserve a culture with strong roots for many Americans. Just as this film depicts an attempt to preserve old English ballads that have survived nearly intact because of the isolation of the mountain people, the film itself is important because it, itself, is an attempt at cultural preservation. The mountain setting of the film is extraordinarily rich, the characters are thankfully more real than stereotypical, and the story is rich and fullfilling. Pat Carroll's performance is exceptional. One of the major plusses of this movie is the way the set design and cinematography contributes to the story. In one key scene shot inside a cabin, the crude conditions are clearly shown by the daylight winking through the walls. The plight of the characters' living conditions is certainly obvious in the story, but that cabin told the rest of the story. In another scene, several people are dancing outdoors and the camera is positioned so that the viewer seems to be standing in the crowd. The scene develops as all but two of the characters dance and the movement of the camera around the dancers to a high angle shot from the trees stretches and isolates the scene so that the dancers are shown to be some distance from the two non-dancers. This shot establishes not so much a rift between the characters, but a separation.This film is very similar to Donald Davidson's novel, The Big Ballad Jamboree (University Press of Mississippi), and I strongly recommend both the movie and the book to everyone wanting to enjoy the richness of true "hillbilly" life and music."
Why had I never heard of this?!
Amazonbombshell | USA | 01/23/2005
(5 out of 5 stars)
"I rented this movie from Netflix because I was in the mood for something different...when it came in the mail, I read the synopsis and wondered what I'd been on. When my husband and I watched it, though, we were both enchanted. The movie itself is extremely well done, with excellent characters and a good story. The music...well, I'd never encountered this kind of music before, and when I first heard it, I wasn't impressed. But it grew on me quickly, and it's powerful stuff! SONGCATCHER is an awesome film more people need to see.
Note to the reviewer who was worried about a misinterpretation of "O Death:" as a first time watcher (and listener: I've never heard the song before), my impression of the song matched yours. I didn't notice the movie slanting its meaning."
Read This Before Buying!
James Beverly | Corinth, Mississippi | 08/09/2004
(1 out of 5 stars)
"So far I have ordered - and returned - three of these DVDs. They were all defective 34 minutes into the film. They would black out and then lock up the player so that it had to be turned off manually. I contacted the IFC - who were very helpful - and they put me in touch with Lions Gate Films. They were rude and simply blew me off and could not have cared less. The Amazon folks were very helpful but could not supply me with a viable copy.
Too bad. It is a great film that captures the feel, the people, and the music of appalachia. I was born there and this film is right on the mark."
Peggy Vincent | Oakland, CA | 01/22/2005
(5 out of 5 stars)
"Traditional folk ballads like you've never heard them performed before, all set amid the hollers and valleys and mountains of Appalachia. Janet McTeer, she of the luminous eyes, plays Dr. Lily Penleric, an academic in musicology who, when she is passed over yet again for full professorship in favor of a man, hies herself off to visit her sister at the tiny rural school she runs in the boondocks. Many issues are addressed in this stunning movie of surprising depth: racism, tolerance, lesbianism, clashing cultures, big business, repression, women's lot, etc. In addition to McTeer, the marvelous Pat Carroll plays a grannie midwife who is a repository for a bazillion "songs," Aidan Quinn plays the love interest who is the bridge between the hill people and the "outsiders," and lovely Emmy Rossum, who has grown up a bit since this movie was filmed and now has the lead in Phantom of the Opera. 2000 Sundance Film Festival winner of a special juried prize for outstanding ensemble performance. Absolutely do not miss this film - and buy the soundtrack. "