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With: Janet McTeer, Aidan Quinn, Jane Adams, Mike Harding, Pat Carroll
Written by: Maggie Greenwald
Directed by: Maggie Greenwald
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for sexual content and an intense scene of childbirth
Running Time: 109
Date: 01/25/2000

Songcatcher (2001)

1 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

It's the Same Old 'Song'

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Songcatcher marks perhaps the sixth or seventh movie I've seen this year that starts out with a good idea and executes it in the most routine and pedestrian way imaginable. As I watched, my boredom quickly grew to annoyance, and escalated even more after I learned that the film actually received a standing ovation at Sundance. How easily some of us are amused.

Janet McTeer, who recently propelled The King Is Alive with her powerful performance, now plays a one-dimensional simpleton, a musicologist living around the turn of the century who journeys to the Appalachian Mountains to record the generations-old mountain songs sung there. She's supposed to be prim and snooty and she pouts and bulges her eyes to achieve this affect. She's so un-feminine that she even loses her cool when asked to help deliver a baby. She never makes any attempt to really communicate with the mountain folks -- she insists upon using her city-bred grammar (with words like "indeed"), further distancing herself from them in a crude, cheap way.

The idea of discovering and recording this music, much of it gorgeous and vibrant (some of it featured in O Brother, Where Art Thou?), is a truly inspired one, and the process McTeer goes through to record and catalog it greatly interested me. But writer and director Maggie Greenwald (The Ballad of Little Jo) decides for us that that's not enough. So she pinches and tucks and prods at the screenplay until she fills it up with half-baked, generic melodramatic devices and subplots. To wit: an evil businessman tries to buy all the property on the mountain to turn it into a coal mine, a happy lesbian couple hopes that they won't get caught (and do), and a drunken widower (Aidan Quinn) argues with, then falls in love with, McTeer. The intent of these clich├ęs was to keep the film "moving," but instead they grind it to a dead stop and scrape at our senses like nails on a chalkboard.

But the most brain-dead plot device of all is when the mountain people -- who have passed their songs down from generation to generation -- suddenly resist giving their songs to McTeer for no particular reason. One of the most common refrains goes, "you ain't takin' our songs." The movie never really explains why not. She's only recording them, not stealing them. The mountain people will still be able to sing them when the city girl is gone.

As in the recent Himalaya, the filmmaker here is not confident that her subject matter alone will carry a whole film. It's natural to worry that audiences won't follow your lead, but Greenwald so wildly and badly overcompensates in the wrong direction that it insults us. I mean, after all, how many of us have lived the life of a musicologist in the Appalachian Mountains in 1907? The mere details of such a life should be, and would be, interesting almost on their own.

Yet Greenwald pitches this cornball concoction directly at the masses, the people who need their finery spoon-fed to them. When McTeer asks Quinn if she can record some of his music, he replies, "I make music to please myself." I can't understand how Greenwald could write that line and be so completely oblivious as to what it means. Songcatcher was not made for herself or any one person. It was made for the lowest common denominator.

(This review originally appeared in the San Francisco Examiner.)

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