A review of  Songcatcher” by Jeanne Aufmuth

 

Stars: ***

Rating: PG-13 for nudity, mild violence

Run Time: 1 hour, 45 minutes

 

Nothing satisfies in the summer like sinking your teeth into a big old cheeseball of a romance, full of wine, women and song.

When is a musical really a musical?  When there’s a goofy, corny narrative surrounding the cascade of melodies.  Brilliant music scholar, Dr. Lily Penleric (Janet McTeer), is summarily passed over for yet another promotion at the university where she teaches.  Sick and tired of butting heads with the male bureaucracy, Lily heads into the Appalachians to lick her wounds and set a spell with her sister, who runs a struggling rural schoolhouse.  Lily is appalled by the isolation and primitive living conditions of the backwoods people, but is nonetheless mesmerized by their harmonious music-making.  Ancient Scots-Irish love ballads, handed down from generation to generation, preserved by the seclusion of the impenetrable mountains.

Smarting from her academic rejection, Lily resolutely goes about making a project of her unexpected discovery.  Traveling from homestead to homestead lugging an archaic recording device, Lily “catches” the lilting tunes – gathering up a collection in order to write a book on the beautiful, dying art of backwoods ballads.  Lily doesn’t count on the suspicious resistance of the local people, in particular a handsome, jaded war veteran named Tom (Aidan Quinn) who questions her endurance and her motivations.

This is eerily reminiscent of those made-for-TV Disney movies of the 50s and 60s.  Light, pleasurable, and easy on the eyes and ears.  A little local drama in the form of a land-greedy coal company representative, a little local scandal involving Lily’s sister and her spinster-ish teaching partner, and a lot of lovely music-making and old-fashioned romance. Quinn and McTeer own chemistry in spades, and I was transported into their flirtatious mating game. Story pitches a high corn level, but it’s not out of step with the goings-on.  The lyrical ballads of Appalachia are transcendental.  Banjos, fiddles, and clear, warbly voice tones speak of antediluvian ancestors and timeless traditions.  Emmy Rossum,  blues folk-icon Taj Mahal, and roots musician Iris Dement contribute their incredible talents, lending the whole experience an erudite otherworldliness.