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Songcatcher Reviews

In this exceptional film, mercifully free of the usual warm and fuzzy movie sentimentality, director Maggie Greenwald and her fine cast shatter most hillbilly stereotypes. Neither DELIVERANCE-style rednecks nor holy innocents possessing the secret of a "natural" life, Greenwald's mountain people have simply maintained their Anglo-Saxon stoicism and weary dignity through generations of hardscrabble living. The story revolves around stony university musicologist Dr. Lily Penleric (Janet McTeer), whom we first meet singing the ballad "Barbara Allen" to a respectful class, then coldly dissecting it. More pragmatic than passionate, Lily is counting on a well-deserved promotion, but the year is 1907, when the glass ceiling was made of concrete. When her promotion is inevitably denied, Lily packs her bags and, cumbersome wax-cylinder recording device in tow, ventures deep into rural Appalachia, where her sister Elna (Jane Adams) teaches school. Hoping to collect authentic folk songs from authentic folk, the citified Lily (who, with admirable purity of character, remains the stiff-backed professor throughout) initially encounters wary resistance from the isolated hill people, but a mutual respect soon develops. For backwoods matriarch Viney Butler (Pat Carroll), music and dance are practical tools for her people's survival, and she sees Lily — the "songcatcher" — as the means by which they can keep their culture alive in the face of increasing encroachment by "the other world." But local opinion on Lily's presence is divided: On one side is Deladis Slocumb (Emmy Rossum), a golden-throated, 13-year-old orphan eager to exhaustion to record songs onto Lily's cylinders. On the other, suspicious war veteran Tom Bledsoe (played by the always excellent Aidan Quinn) worries that Lily is exploiting his community. The sad events following the community's discovery that Elna and her fellow teacher, Harriet (E. Katherine Kerr), are lesbians are shown to be typical of the time, not the place. And the subsequent actions of these practical people are complex, as is the relationship between Lily and Tom — one that's more about banjo strings than heartstrings. Weaving through it all is some of the most beautiful music you've ever heard, from Emmylou Harris on the soundtrack to cast members Iris DeMent, Hazel Dickens and Taj Mahal. Prodigiously talented youngster Rossum is particularly noteworthy; an operatically trained singer, she's so natural as a backwoods girl that the fact that she's a New York professional is something out of Ripley's Believe-It-or-Not.