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Captivating 'Songcatcher'
By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 6, 2001


    'Songcatcher' Aidan Quinn and Janet McTeer in "Songcatcher."
(Photo by James Bridges/Lions Gate Films)
Songcatcher pays sweet tribute to the folk music of Appalachia with a simple but affecting story, soulful songs from the mountains and the delicate acting talents of Janet McTeer – the songcatcher of the title, who's quietly determined to make the world aware of this powerful folk tradition.

In Maggie Greenwald's movie, McTeer is Lily Penleric, a musicologist who has been passed over, yet again, for a full university professorship. Frustrated by the vote of no confidence, she takes off for Appalachia, where she hears there is great music to be recorded.

The year is 1907, and the great traditions of bluegrass, folk and country music in the mountains are still well-kept cultural secrets.

To record and notate these songs, she'll have to drag cumbersome recording equipment by horse and carriage over rugged, hilly terrain. Then she'll have to find local musicians and persuade them to share their personal songs – handed down for generations – to a complete stranger. Lily has no assistants and little money. But her sister, Elna (Jane Adams), has a schoolhouse in the region, which Lily establishes as a sort of base camp.

Lily finds a world of abject poverty and musical richness, of tight-lipped but proud people whose music reflects their hardscrabble lives and also the music of yesteryear in the old countries of England, Scotland and Ireland.

She also finds herself in a time when the guitar and the mandolin are still novelties. Much of the local music comes from penny whistles, flutes, mouth harps and dulcimers.

Local musician Tom Bledsoe (Aidan Quinn) is one of the enlightened ones, who plays guitar and enjoys impromptu jam sessions with black musician Dexter Speaks (Taj Mahal). But he's also rife with suspicion that Lily has come to exploit – not celebrate – this music. And he has some tragic history when it comes to romantic relationships.

Despite resistance from Tom, as well as hostility from a surly local boy named Fate (Greg Russell Cook), Lily is determined to bring this music to the world. As the local folks discover, nothing will stop her resolve.

Of course, the music itself is more than half the magic. And Greenwald personalizes the songs wonderfully with Pat Carroll, playing a gun-toting songwriter-singer named Viney Butler, and teenager (and operatically trained) Emmy Rossum, who plays an orphan named Deladis Slocumb who has a knack for great traditional songs. The soundtrack features fine offerings from Emmylou Harris, as well as Taj Mahal, Iris DeMent and Hazel Dickens – the latter three also appearing in the film.

"Songcatcher," which Greenwald ("The Ballad of Little Jo") wrote and directed, moves with charmingly reverential deliberation. Although it has some fairly transparent story devices – including a predictable romance between the sophisticated Lily and the earthy, traditional Tom, and the almost requisite (for this region) shady dealings of the coal companies – it has such great textures, you overlook these things. Like Lily, you're committed to getting deeper into this world and not standing back and thinking about picayune moviemaking problems – like some kind of outsider. The haunting beauty of the music, and the people who produce it – that's the chapter and verse of this story.

"Songcatcher" (PG-13, 105 minutes) – Contains sexual situations and a little violence. At the Cineplex Odeon Dupont Circle and Cinema Arts Theatre.


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