(Maggie Greenwald, USA, 2001)


We are so used to musical themes and variations weaving their way under the narratives of films that we often scarcely notice the art and craft involved. So it is a shock to the senses when, very occasionally, a movie takes as its very subject the discovery of a song and the path that it subsequently takes through the world.


Songcatcher begins with musicologist Lily (Janet McTeer) performing a beautifully measured version of the folk song "Barbara Allen" for her students. Everything around her speaks culture, refinement, learning. But it is only when Lily gamely ventures into the Appalachian mountains that she will hear a truer version of this same tune.


Although the year is 1907, Songcatcher relies on an unstated parallel with a contemporary situation: the rise of world music, with its heavy (and often dubious) emphasis on folk and primitive traditions. For a fleeting moment, Tom (Aidan Quinn) aggressively counters Lily's claim that she has come to exalt this music with the charge that she is there merely to exploit it.


But this is, essentially, a story of going native – in which the over-civilised Lily will throw off her shackles and discover herself.


Writer-director Maggie Greenwald (The Ballad of Little Jo, 1993) has an undoubted feeling for music and for nature – which, fortunately, count for almost everything here – but is less adept at shaping other elements. McTeer gives an overly mannered and theatrical performance. Plots and sub-plots involving romance and the conflict of old and new ways follow a by-the-numbers schema.


The influence of John Sayles hangs heavily over Songcatcher. Like him, Greenwald has intriguing ideas that never quite manage to become dynamic, cinematic fictions.  We can admire the intention, but are rarely thrilled or moved. Also like Sayles, Greenwald has a weakness for turning her tales into vehicles for political platitudes: her vision of pioneer life would be incomplete without not only a proto-feminist heroine, but also a heroic queer couple in the local school closet.


Greenwald is more interested in the lolling in the Arcadian idyll offered by these Appalachian mountains than in confronting the dramatic forces that inevitably alter them. Still, the days of heaven she evokes – suspended in timeless rituals of song, dance and working the land – do exude a lovely fragrance.

© Adrian Martin March 2001

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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