"I've never been anywhere where music is such a part of life, like the air you breathe."—Lily Penleric
On December 22 of 2000, O Brother, Where Art Thou emerged and shook up the music world. The film's integral score was as far from popular music as a soundtrack could be, yet it took home the Grammy for Album of the Year and spawned the follow-up album Down from the Mountain. The Appalachian ditty "Man of Constant Sorrow" became an unlikely hit on our modern airwaves (and took a Grammy award to boot). Ralph Stanley's rendition of "O Death" scored the Grammy for Male Country Vocal Performance. It was a stunning musical coup.
The O Brother onslaught eclipsed our memory of a similar film released 355 days before it on January 1, 2000. Songcatcher is a quiet film that probably flew under your radar. The silence is understandable. After all, Songcatcher is an independent film with few recognizable stars. It deals with mountain culture and their ancient ballads. On top of those credentials (which bounce right off of the cutting edge of pop culture), the story is uneven and melodramatic. As a film, O Brother, Where Art Thou is more memorable and cohesive, with bigger stars and higher aspirations.
However, there is one area in which Songcatcher is arguably superior to O Brother, Where Art Thou: the score. Songcatcher is hit or miss when it comes to dramatic tension, but when the singing starts, you are mesmerized. Each simple song weaves a spell of rugged emotion. O Brother, Where Art Thou incorporates the songs into the plot (albeit fantastically well), while Songcatcher sets them up and then shuts up to let us listen. The songs take greater focus, enhancing their impact. In O Brother, Where Art Thou, "O Death" has a powerful yet abstract relationship to the proceedings. In Songcatcher, "O Death" is sung in tandem by people who are very familiar with death's imminence as part of daily existence. When the mountain folk sing it, you feel as though death himself is about to swoop in to answer their call.
It isn't completely puzzling why O Brother, Where Art Thou ignited the popular imagination while Songcatcher languishes in relative obscurity. O Brother had some noteworthy brothers involved, as well as George Clooney, Johns Turturro and Goodman, and Holly Hunter. But one can't help but wonder if Songcatcher inspired the Coens in some way, if "O Death" was chilling enough to warrant a place in O Brother, if the Appalachian vibe caught the brothers' attention. If you enjoyed the visceral earthiness of the O Brother soundtrack, there is another jewel awaiting your discovery in Songcatcher.
Facts of the Case
In the early 1900s, Professor Lily Penleric (Janet McTeer) is a gifted musicologist who has been snubbed by her misogynist peers. Upon denial of her promotion, she leaves the University in a swarm of anger. The steam of her rage propels her deep into the Appalachian mountains, where her sister Elna (Jane Adams) co-leads a rural school. Lily's starched white clothes and haughty demeanor don't fit in too well 'round these parts. She has trouble finding a niche—until she hears an orphan girl singing (Emmy Rossum in her debut role). Deladis Slocumb's plaintive ballad has the staid Lily quivering like a dulcimer string. Deladis is somehow singing a little-known Irish tune. As a musicologist, Lily is naturally fascinated that this humble girl could know such obscure tunes. Lily soon finds that most of the mountain people know these tunes, which have been passed down from generation to generation by their Scotch-Irish forebears. The mountains' isolation has maintained the purity of these ballads for hundreds of years.
With the musical discovery of the century on her hands, Lily Penleric sets about recording the songs of the mountain people. (Get it? Pen lyric.) Her unwieldy phonograph and wax cylinders frustrate the local bellhops, and the mountain people are suspicious of her motives. Lily manages to convince them of her noble aim (which is to sell their musical heritage for piles of cash while bringing scads of curious music lovers into the solitary mountain towns). She records their songs, oblivious to the brewing animosity around her. Will she pay the ultimate price for her profession?
There are many reasons why I sat entranced throughout this film. The most obvious is the music. If you like this type of music, you can't help being enthralled by these gems. Earthy voices worn with care and time pay tribute to ancient themes of love, loss, death, and worry. These voices are like weary wagon wheels trudging over rocks of misery and hope. The same spirit of defiant hope is coaxed out of banjos, guitars, and fiddles. These are the roots of modern music; their sophisticated primitive form is fascinating.
Another reason for my undivided attention was that Songcatcher depicts my beloved North Carolina mountains. Southern accents seem to invite laughter, even ridicule. The Appalachian dialect moves further into caricature, as though such backward ways couldn't possibly exist in our time. Yet I grew up overlooking the Blue Ridge among people who made their own whiskey and hunted for their food. Some of my happiest days were spent trudging through thick pine forests and rhododendrons, picking blackberries and catching trout from the stream. Ideas like time, security, and entertainment take on new meaning in the mountains. I can't praise the education I received there, but I fondly remember the music festivals and porch songs at dusk. The simplicity of a dulcimer and a human voice can haunt or uplift you. My accent is faded and I've since moved out of the Appalachians, which means I may never again be on the intimate side of an impromptu bout of mountain music. Songcatcher reminds me of those times.
Did Songcatcher deliver? Sort of. There is no mistaking the locale. When Lily Penleric was hauling her equipment through dale and stream, I was struck by a sense of the familiar. (Of course, I had to laugh at the relatively tamed, accessible places in which they filmed.) The sights and sounds are evocative of 1900 North Carolina. The first half of the film does a decent job of translating the inflexible mountain code. Aidan Quinn as Tom Bledsoe is the clearest voice. Though the code is distilled and delivered with remarkable eloquence, I perceive verisimilitude. He says exactly what many mountain denizens would feel: get the hell out, we don't care about your recording machine or your glorification of mountain culture. There are three stereotypes invoked by Songcatcher that deserve comment: moonshiners, shotguns, and panther cats. In several scenes, porch dwellers whip out their shotguns and aim it right at the chest of the transgressor. I must quibble: the authentic mountain way would be to rest the shotgun casually in the lap, not specifically pointed at you but in your general direction. There would be less talk and more staring involved. In one scene, Lily and Tom stumble across a hidden still with a shotgun in their faces. This scene is an appropriate use of the directly aimed shotgun; had Tom not been there Lily would have been a goner. Finally, Viney Butler's earnest warning about the panther cat might draw snorts of derision from some viewers. Let me assure you that both the panther cat and the way Lily was warned are both quite authentic. I was given many unsolicited warnings of grave danger about snakes, bogs, poisonous vines, bears, and the like. And though actual bobcats aren't much of a threat to adults, they do sound like banshees.
Otherwise, Songcatcher is a bit too glib with the conventions it establishes so earnestly. The first half is a great setup to a chaotic, pedantic, and melodramatic finale. Lots 'a tics in these parts. At some point I stopped being amused and grew irritated. Fortunately, the great music continues throughout.
The performances are quite good, but several distinguish themselves. Viney Butler is portrayed by Pat Carroll (the voice behind Ursula in The Little Mermaid) in a rare onscreen performance. She is a perfect mountain woman, shrewd and suspicious, quick to laugh or scowl, handy with a butter churn or a folk remedy. I think she might have been my neighbor. Aidan Quinn pours everything into a poorly written role. His enthusiastic realism perks up his scenes. Emmy Rossum is stellar as both an actress and vocalist, doe-eyed yet feral. I feel for David Patrick Kelly, who played the turncoat Earl Giddens with glee and aplomb. It is unfortunate that little was done with the subplot he worked so hard to build, leaving him distasteful and trite. Fortunately, he gets the show stopping vocal performance in "O Death."
The extras package is thorough and a little out there. Maggie Greenwald and David Mansfield speak with starry vehemence about their project, reinforcing the zealot message vibe. The actors give on set interviews that show the people behind the costumes. Dolly Parton speaks about the music, which is a mystery unless you discern that she sang on the soundtrack. The commentary track is subdued and serious. The director speaks in measured tones about her goals, liberties taken, and opinions about the performances. The commentary did clear up many questions, but wasn't overly entertaining. The best extra is extended songs that are practically worth the price of admission.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Songcatcher firmly emphasizes its main strength, which is rich mountain music and the story behind its widespread discovery. Yet it does have flaws which undermine the generally positive trend.
I wish I could rave about the stunning cinematography capturing the wild mountains in their lush glory. Songcatcher captured the spirit of the mountains, but the video quality isn't very good. The primary culprit is lighting. Most of the indoor scenes are under lit, as though they were attempting a Godfather vibe on a Clerks lighting budget. The nighttime outdoor scenes are poorly lit as well, though the daylight scenes look good. Perhaps because of lighting, the shadow detail is murky. Overall contrast is rather low. Not really low, just low enough to make some scenes dingy. None of these flaws are overwhelming. The cinematography is fine and the overall look is passable, nothing more.
Unfortunately, the DVD transfer hurts the case. The artifact du jour is in full effect here: overzealous edge enhancement. Unless your name is Space Ghost, faint white outlines do not become you. Songcatcher has one of those transfers where you immediately know EE is present even if you don't immediately spot it. For an obvious example, watch the shoulders of the Department Head as he gives Lily her bad news. Either he has significant dandruff buildup or there is edge enhancement.
The grain is not very noticeable. I suspect this is due to digital noise reduction, which is used to artificially reduce film grain. When the camera pans with trees in the background, the leaves go from crisp to indistinct back to crisp. The gravel in the pathways and the bark on the trees crawl. These are telltale hints of DNR. It isn't bad DNR, but in conjunction with edge enhancement DNR serves to further mar the video quality. I noticed a similar EE/DNR cocktail in my recent review of Pipe Dream. Perhaps Lions Gate used the same production house to master this DVD.
Edge enhancement isn't the only crime perpetrated by the DVD mastering. Somewhere within chapter 7, the video began to freeze up and the audio became choppy. This extended bout of digital crankiness eventually caused the player to crash. I estimate I missed about half of a chapter, but there's no way to be sure. The beginning of the freeze is a scene with moonshiners. It ends with an argument about Elna's love affair.
Elna's love affair prompts one of the biggest criticisms of Songcatcher. Elna loves a woman. This fact is the launching pad for several scenes of preachy rhetoric. These scenes are obviously couched in a modern issue, and the rhetoric feels so out of place that it mars the flow of the movie. Furthermore, this blatant political ploy throws Greenwald's more subtle agenda into sharp relief. After listening to the preachy discussion of the otherwise simple fact that Elna is a lesbian, I pondered the aggressive feminist undertones in the film. Almost every male is cast in a stereotypically negative light, while the females are predominantly sensitive and intelligent. Lily is dedicated and noble while her male peers are pompous misogynists. Deladis is a sprightly, hardworking young woman with a positive attitude while her male counterpart is lazy, suspicious, crude, and violent. One woman slaves away on the homestead raising and bearing children alone; her husband gets drunk and sleeps around. The town women quilt and do chores while the men sit around and make whiskey. Ponder this witticism from Viney Butler as she reprimands her pregnant friend: "Alice, you're gonna have to keep Reese away from you. Well, if you don't want butter, you go to pull the dasher out in time." I have no problem with a feminist tale where the man bends to the woman's will for a change, but the crude stereotypes on display are disingenuous.
Even the token "sensitive guy" does a complete about-face that cheapens his character. Tom Bledsoe, played admirably by Aidan Quinn, is eloquently adamant about the exploitation of Appalachian culture. He cares nothing about what outsiders think or believe. His heartfelt counterpoints to Lily's actions comprise a clear and logical world view. But after they fall into each other's arms, he's packing up and leaving the mountains to be her banjo player. Inconsistencies like this one abound, undermining the solidity of the plot.
Maggie Greenwald and David Mansfield believed in their central concept firmly, even fanatically. Their single-minded enthusiasm to explore the roots of country music in spite of popular trends brought us a breathtaking exploration of Appalachian musical culture. Paradoxically, they didn't believe in their concept enough. They strained the fragile threads of the tale by forcing unnecessary modern political disputes into the narrative. Had they let the music speak purely and concentrated firmly on the basic concept, Songcatcher might have earned some of the accolades that O Brother, Where Art Thou took in its stead.
If you enjoy bluegrass or country, or you simply love music, Songcatcher has many worthy moments. Sit back and experience the more authentic kin to the O Brother, Where Art Thou soundtrack.
Maggie Greenwald, the court finds you guilty of a poorly hidden aggressive feminist agenda. However, in light of your insightful collaboration with musicologist David Mansfield, this court is inclined to overlook the charges. The glorious ensemble cast is commended for working with the material, be it sublime and oft ridiculous. Loosen the nooses, uncock the shotguns, this gang is allowed to walk back down the mountain in peace.
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Scales of Justice
• Commentary by Writer-Director Maggie Greenwald and Composer-Arranger David Mansfield
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