STARRING: Janet McTeer, Aidan Quinn, Pat Carroll and Emmy Rossum
DIRECTOR: Maggie Greenwald
RUNNING TIME: 109 minutes
RATING: PG 13 for nudity, sexual subject matter
THE LOWDOWN: Dr. Lily Penleric, a turn-of-the-century musicologist, discovers the beauty and simplicity of Appalachian music and life.
Like the delicate landscape of a snow-globe music box, director/writer Maggie Greenwald diffuses the scenic and music elements of "Songcatcher" to create a poignant paean to Appalachian balladry.
What makes this film so compelling is the roots music. English ballads from "Barbara Allen" to "Matty Groves" drive the predictable plot - a journey of musical, personal and romantic discovery.
At times the clunky writing threatens to turn this sweet lyrical miniature into a ham-fisted melodrama. Fortunately, it is rescued by the music.
It's 1907 and musicologist Dr. Lily Penleric (Janet McTeer) is teaching her graduate seminar. She performs "Barbara Allen" on a piano, note-perfect but with little emotion.
Passed over repeatedly for a university promotion despite her academic achievements, she departs to join her sister Elna (Jane Adams), who runs a one-room schoolhouse in the remote Appalachian Mountains.
Lily discovers the essence of mountain music in the scarlet-throated orphan Deladis Slocumb (Emmy Rossum), who sings traditional English ballads with a vocal purity that reflects the fiercely insular and protective mountain ways.
Upon discovering these English ballads virtually unchanged in 200 years, Lily starts to notate and collect Deladis' and the community's songs, forgetting her own glib assessment of folk music - "The melodies are quaint and primitive ..."
Her journey of emotional and musical maturation is guided by Viney Butler (Pat Carroll), an elderly midwife, earth mother and survivor. Viney's pragmatic take on marital duty and contraception is pointed: "If you don't want butter, you have to pull the dasher out in time."
But it's not the stranger-in-a-strange-land plot, feminist trappings nor a burgeoning romance between mountain man Tom Bledsoe (Aidan Quinn) and Lily that drives this celebration of homegrown music. It's the 17 songs sung live by the actors.
As Lily gradually loosens her corset and lets down her hair, she understands the true treasure that she has found.
She is called a "songcatcher," but eventually she realizes that music cannot be locked onto pages of manuscript or wax cylinders. A people's music is a living, breathing tradition, as important as food or air.
Ultimately, "Songcatcher" spotlights some of this country's most treasured cultural foundations. Music legends Taj Mahal, Emmylou Harris and Iris Dement help bring to life the raw and transcendentally lyric ballads and tunes of Appalachia.
A Buffalo connection to "Songcatcher" is provided by one of the film's producers, Ellen Rigas Venetis, daughter of John Rigas.