|Great idea, humanistic
attitude, beautiful and authentic music. Do you need more?
How about the story?
Well, that couldn't be much worse. For
the record: a pompous, condescending musicologist comes to the backwoods
and starts archiving the local songs. She eventually comes to love the
In terms of the script, this
one-dimensional film has every possible cliche:
the condescending attitude of the male
professors toward her discovery
the lyin', cheatin' husbands
the women abandoned to despair by lyin',
cheatin' husbands (have you determined yet that the script was written
by a woman)
the shifty coal company official tryin'
to hornswaggle the honest mountain folk out of their land
the coal company owner who refers to the
mountaineers as savages
the fact that the simple folk turn out
to have true wisdom and intelligence
the scene where the retarded-lookin'
bumpkin plays his musical instrument better than Eric Clapton
the ol' black musician
the loveable, feisty ol' grannie who
says stuff like "you boys is actin' like a right buncha assholes"
the moonshine stills
the city musicologist who falls in love
with the sensitive country bumpkin
numerous tragedies, calamities, and
Not only that, but the entire movie is
determined to be uplifting and worthy, and does more preaching than
Sunday morning cable TV. Just ignore all that. The story isn't
even necessary, because watching this without the singing would be like
watching Oklahoma! without the singing. In fact, I don't really know if
it makes sense to say that this movie or Oklahoma! would be a bad movie
without the music, because the music is the whole point.
So enjoy the singin' and pluckin'.
comments in yellow:
Songcatcher (2000) is a
Maggie Greenwald film about a female musicologist who is passed over for
a full professorship at an anonymous eastern private college, and joins
her sister at a mountain "settlement school" in the mountains. There she
discovers a musical tradition going back to ancient English and Scottish
ballads, literally unchanged from when their ancestors first immigrated.
The story is set at the turn of the century, which is several years
early for this discovery, but nonetheless is based on an historical
event that marked the beginning of country and western music. In a good
commentary track, Greenwald explains exactly where she took artistic
license with the true story, and why. Where she didn't take any license
at all was in the music, which was performed exactly as collected in the
The initial settlement of the mountain folk was prompted as much by coal
mining companies as anything. Missionaries lived among them, and started
schools to turn the hill folks into modern citizens. There were also lay
settlement schools, privately owned, which had the goal of educating,
but preserving the local culture. The musicologist, played by Janet
McTeer, gradually manages to become accepted by the suspicious local
residents and starts collecting this amazing work. Meanwhile, we learn
that her sister, played by Jane Adams, is in a lesbian relationship with
the director of the school. The writer/director essentially doesn't
believe that all school teachers were sexless old spinsters, and wanted
to give them some sexuality. In fact, she created a love interest of
some kind for every woman in the film. The musicologist herself ends up
falling for one of these crude hill folk.
I adored this film, but then it is decidedly my sort of film. The
scenery was breathtaking, and the performances very convincing. I also
enjoyed the cultural insights. Overall, however, it was the music that
carried the story. As a 60s vintage folk aficionado, I recognized most
of the songs in the film as the ones that influenced people like Joan
Baez, The Kingston Trio, and Bob Dylan. Taj Mahal even stopped in long
enough to write and perform a traditional sounding banjo piece.
- With their
dollars ... $3 million domestic gross. Maxed out at 104
guideline: 7.5 usually indicates a level of
excellence, about like three and a half stars
from the critics. 6.0 usually indicates lukewarm
watchability, about like two and a half stars
from the critics. The fives are generally not
worthwhile unless they are really your kind of
material, about like two stars from the critics.
Films under five are generally awful even if you
like that kind of film, equivalent to about one
and a half stars from the critics or less,
depending on just how far below five the rating
guideline: A means the movie is so good it
will appeal to you even if you hate the genre. B means the movie is not
good enough to win you over if you hate the
genre, but is good enough to do so if you have an
open mind about this type of film. C means it will only
appeal to genre addicts, and has no crossover
appeal. D means you'll hate it even if you
like the genre. E means that you'll hate it even if
you love the genre. F means that the film is not only
unappealing across-the-board, but technically
inept as well.
Based on this
description, both reviewers conclude that the film is a C+.
Scoop says, "Fantastic movie if you are
interested in the authentic folk music of Appalachia, but if
that doesn't ring your chimes, the movie itself is about as
profound as Oklahoma!" Tuna says, "
If you don't like folk music and have no interest in the
culture, you won't find much to like here. If this is your
kind of film, it is amazingly good."