Songcatcher (2001)

by James Snapko


Play Me Some Mountain Music

The most effective dichotomy in Maggie Greenwald’s film, Songcatcher, is in the continually abrasive relationship between industry and culture, embodied by Dr. Lily Penleric (Janet McTeer), a strong-willed, intelligent woman. In both the university where she initially teaches and the rural community where she goes to conduct her research, she is an outsider. Her precarious place between worlds makes her a metaphor for the film’s themes.

The opening image is of a piano keyboard, where Lily is playing an English love song. Several close-ups of Lily’s face and the keys of what appears to be a well-used instrument, suggest an intimacy between Lily and her music. Not until the camera pulls back do we see that she’s actually performing for a group of students, all of them young men, instructing them on the history and musical qualities of the piece she’s playing. This brief scene gives us access to Lily’s world, and her relationship with her music.

cover art


Director: Maggie Greenwald
Cast: Janet McTeer, Aidan Quinn, Pat Carroll, Jane Adams, E. Katherine Kerr

(Lions Gate Films)

It’s unfortunate that this initial subtlety does not continue through the rest of Songcatcher. When Lily does not get the promotion she deserves, she leaves town for a small schoolhouse in the Appalachian Mountains, run by her sister Elna (Jane Adams) and Elna’s professional and romantic partner, Harriet (E. Katherine Kerr). Here, Lily is exposed to some old Scots-Irish and English folk songs that have been passed by mothers and fathers to daughters and sons, generation to generation. Something about these songs piques her interest (McTeer has a quirky way of showing Lily’s curiosity about these songs, expanding her eyes so they appear rounder, while she bobs her head to an odd rhythm, not quite in time with the music she’s hearing).

Lily decides that she wants to transcribe and record these songs, so she can publish them in a book; if she is able to publish the songs, then she will have indisputable ammunition for a promotion. This becomes her quest. Hauling her bulky recording equipment over streams and up steep slopes is a difficult task at times, but Lily is too determined to quit. Her quest takes her to different locations in the mountains, where she meets some quaint, some rugged, and some friendly people, who all seem to know these old love songs.

One of the more endearing of these characters is Viney Butler (Pat Carroll). You can hear the hard life Viney’s had in her scratchy voice. A surly older woman with solid morals and a short temper, Viney is just as willing to sing a song as she is to blow someone’s head off with a shotgun. Whether it’s her wrinkly, weathered face or her tough-as-nails sneer, Carroll is perfect for this role. Viney and Lily like one another almost immediately: both are stubborn, determined, resourceful women in worlds where men dominate. Lily makes a less favorable first impression on Viney’s nephew Tom Bledsoe (Aidan Quinn). He thinks Lily means to exploit the music, though she assures him that her intentions are honorable: she only wants to preserve, not steal, the songs. At this point, Songcatcher is most obviously about Lily’s feelings for an “organic” music, created and perpetuated by indigenous people in a bucolic setting.

The conventional romance between Tom and Lily seems contrived, and ultimately changes her goals. Tom is the kind of guy who is tough on the outside but has a soft heart, demonstrated by the fact that he plays bluegrass music on banjo and guitar. Lily is impressed: she tells him, “Your music is like the air you breathe.” Pretty much everybody Lily meets in the mountains sings or plays an instrument, and so it looks as though Lily’s quest—to “catch” the songs—will be fulfilled. Unfortunately, it doesn’t happen that easily.

The film includes several contemporary women’s issues in order to heighten the drama, or more accurately, the melodrama. Lily meets with a variety of obstacles. First, she’s seen by the locals as an “outlander” first and foremost, and she’s an educated woman. Second, her sister is a lesbian, which leads to an explicit instance of homophobia. This tension is at its highest when Elna and Harriet are making out in the woods, and are discovered by a local kid. Eventually all of these circumstances lead to Lily, her sister, and their friends becoming victims of intolerance. Lily takes this as a sign that her work is not the most important element of her quest. She focuses instead on the opportunity to share her life with Tom, a man who has a passion for music and finds happiness in the same things she does.

The idealism at the core of Songcatcher is not necessarily a fault. What doesn’t work is that we are set up to believe that Lily is searching for another kind of identity. If we distill the story down to its basic elements, Lily and Tom are not that different from the characters Jack (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Rose (Kate Winslet), of Titanic (1997): a sophisticated, upper class woman meets a disheveled, lower class man and they hit it off. Even though they do not seem right for one another, they find that class and education aren’t important. They learn to respect each other and fall in love. Songcatcher doesn’t build to a climax involving the sinking of a ship, of course. But its trite romance is distracting, and eventually overtakes its more intriguing themes, having to do with music and feminist issues. Sometimes, less is more.

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