SONGCATCHER ended and I was waiting for an epilogue scroll to tell what happened to the characters. Knowing nothing about this heartfelt little piece of period Americana going into it, I was so convinced of the authenticity of its story that I assumed it was non-fiction. Surprise, the 2000 drama is an original work written and directed by Maggie Greenwald. It is however, sensibly enough, based off the cultural wanderings of some real people. Fact or fiction, it has truth going for it, as well as charm, dignity, acute casting and great music. *
Denied recognition and promotion due to sexism, upright (and initially uptight) music professor ‘Dr. Lily Penleric’ (the imposing Janet McTeer) leaves stuffy halls of New England for the arcane hollers of the Southern Appalachians, where her likewise independent sister (a soulful Jane Adams) has started a rural school for the book-deprived mountaineers. Making strenuous and often dangerous treks through the area, Penleric is stunned to uncover a rich legacy of folk music, much deeper than her presumed sophistication had guessed and is gradually won over by the hearts and spirits of the backwoods people, who aren’t as backwards as the ‘civilized’ outsiders sneer. Well, not all: there are trials of chauvinist ignorance, hellfire superstition and sudden violence to be undergone while the bonds of commonality are tested.
“I’m not drunk, I’m… celebrating.”
Among the variously amused and helpful, suspicious or sneaky locals are ‘Tom’, whose gruffness conceals pain and depth (Aidan Quinn, as always both smart and soulful: he crash-course learned guitar and banjo from scratch for the role); ‘Deladis’, orphaned, sweet and blossoming (Emmy Rossum, shining, a great film debut at 13); ‘Viney’, indomitable repository of tradition (Pat Carroll, 72, unrecognizable except her undiminished zest) and ‘Earl Giddens’–you know that name bodes ill—selling out heritage for coal money (David Patrick Kelly, dangerous as ever 21 years on from The Warriors, with some stray shades of humanity to his perennial bad-guy this time out).
You can’t catch ’em all, and this movie not only caught me by surprise by how good it was, and by it’s very existence (guess I was out of the country), but that offbeat leading lady McTeer, 38 here, has been twice-nominated for an Oscar (1999 Actress in Tumbleweeds, 2011 Supporting Actress in Albert Nobbs) for films I have yet to see. I hereby slap myself shamefaced for dereliction. She’s excellent in a prickly part that sees her tightly-bound snob slowly melted into a softie from the decency of her ‘subject’s’.
“See, that’s what you outlanders don’t understand. Life is for enjoying, not just getting and working, and getting and working.”
Greenwald’s writing and direction, and the winning acting are fine on their own, but they’re naturally and fittingly subsumed by the lovely traditional Scots-Irish ballads Penleric/McTeer/Campbell finds and records for posterity. David Mansfield arranged a score that has some cast members singing classic laments while others were performed—and three originals composed— by Emmy Lou Harris, Dolly Parton, Rosanne Cash, Patty Loveless, Deana Carter, Hazel Dickens, Maria McKee, Sara Evans and Allison Moorer. Heartache is the worst, but in song it can sometimes be the best.
Filmed in the Smokies outside Asheville, North Carolina, this mountain laurel was grown on a budget of just $1,800,000. Reviews were positive, it grossed $3,051,000 and spawned two albums. 109 minutes, with Greg Russell Cook, Stephanie Roth Haberlie, E. Catherine Kerr, Iris DeMent and Taj Mahal.
* The story was based on the experiences of the redoubtable Olive Dame Campbell, a Massachusetts educator and musicologist, who, first with her husband (John Charles Campbell) and later with her sister Daisy Dame, spent years in the Appalachians, chiefly in North Carolina, collecting and preserving ballads and handicrafts. She founded the John C. Campbell Folk School, based on a Danish model, and continued the vital work she started in 1909 until her death in 1954. The character at the end of the film (played by Steven Sutherland) is based on Cecil J. Sharp, a renowned, controversial English folk song collector who followed the Campbell path into the reclusive but warm world of the mountaineers. Heritage galore.