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Janet McTeer... ...Dr. Lily Penleric
Aidan Quinn... ...Tom Bledsoe
Pat Carroll... ...Viney Butler
Jane Adams... ...Elna Penleric
Greg Cook... ...Fate Honeycutt
Iris DeMent... ...Rose Gentry
Stephanie Roth... ...Alice Kincaid
David Patrick Kelly... ...Earl Giddens

Directed by: Maggie Greenwald
Written by: Maggie Greenwald
Rated PG-13 for sexual content and an intense scene of childbirth
Running Time: 1 hour, 52 minutes

The Hills Are Alive
She has been passed over again. Dr. Lily Penleric (Janet McTeer) has devoted her life to the study of music and is one of the most knowledgeable instructors at the university. A promotion she has had her sights set on for a long time has again gone to another party. Frustrated and more determined than ever, she heads for the Appalachian mountains with her bulky recording device in tow. Her plan is to record music never heard before.

"Songcatcher" utilizes the familiar yet engaging premise of a heroine entering a world she first sees as small and insignificant in certain ways, but comes to understand the close-knit compassion of its inhabitants and learns from them as well. In this case, the teacher becomes a student of life.

The story takes place in 1907. Lily's trek has her reuniting with her younger sister, Elna (Jane Adams). Elna runs a schoolhouse that serves as the sole learning institution for the area. While there, Lily is introduced to hypnotic songs passed on from generation to generation that have never been recorded. Eager to compile the hauntingly beautiful melodies, she ventures further into the mountains. With the help of an elderly shotgun-toting matriarch (Pat Carroll) and a lovely-voiced orphan (Emmy Rossum), Lily grows closer the the land's inhabitants and their culture. Not everyone is captivated by the newcomer, including tough and talented musician Tom Bledsoe (Aidan Quinn). Upon their first meeting, Tom accuses Lily of exploiting the locals with her recording device and big city ways. Of course, they do come to an understanding and eventually grow quite close.

The movie was written and directed by Maggie Greenwald ("The Ballad of Little Jo") who's no stranger to tackling difficult issues, although she does so using broad narrative strokes. She takes on some issues here as well; perhaps a tad too many. We have subplots involving marital disputes, bootlegging, homosexual relationships, religious zealots, and greedy coal companies. Observing such a wide range of topics renders the movie incapable of examining any one to great lengths. I admire Greenwald's fearless approach to these variegated topics, even if they're not the most intimate catechizations.

What really makes the movie is the music. Like an outstretched arm to the past, the songs carry an enchanting affirmation of the songster's familial roots. The words house cross-generational lessons that travel through the strands of time and back again via the heart of the warbler.

With her no-nonsense demeanor and unusually rugged facial features, Janet McTeer perfectly embodies a tenacious gatherer of information. Her transition from viewing the locals with a detached, semi-condescending eye to that of a student of their culture is handled in a delicate manner, as she never fully sacrifices her own roots, but heeds the lessons learned from the ancestral seeds of others.

While not an earth-shattering exploration of social issues, "Songcatcher" is nonetheless a fascinating journey through a culture whose soul is the lyrical ballads that never age and never stop speaking to the heart.

Copyright 2001 Michael Brendan McLarney

Critically Ill

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