Songcatcher (2000, Maggie Greenwald)

!!!!! AVOID !!!!!

Do you like Appalachian folk music? Do you take it seriously? Do you find it a beautiful and transportive facet of American culture and lore? Have I got a movie for you to steadfastedly avoid! Maggie Greenwald’s Songcatcher is a fine enough idea, the sordid tale of a traveling musicologist who makes the startling discovery that the estimable Scottish folk songs that have been her heritage and life’s work have mutated into bluegrass in the southern U.S., while also discovering the existence of lesbians and the fine blues musician Taj Mahal, who isn’t allowed to say any lines. Of course, the story is really a strung-together distraction from a celebration of an important and emotionally rich aspect of our musical history. If only they had just made a concert movie and let the actors keep their mouths shut. Instead, Greenwald cheapens everything about her well-exhibited passions and conceit with Lifetime telefilm theatrics and thuddingly generic, lazy characterization and storytelling. Potentially at least illuminating, the film is just about the stupidest one can imagine wringing from its subject matter.

And what’s annoying about it is that, at least to an outsider, it seems like could have been so simple to make something elegant and beautiful of this. What music we get to hear is gorgeous, homey, witty, wonderfully offbeat, and I’m told that the soundtrack album goes even further. To witness great bluegrass — from “Barbara Allen” to, splendidly, “Single Girl” — at its core and close to its greatest purity and inception, even simulated by a narrative feature film, might well be soul-stirring. If you’ve ever been in the relevant part of the country, you know that those mountains are something to look at too, and Greenwald uses her locations resourcefully, creating a film with an unmistakably clear and artful sense of place. It all rings hollow, and the reason is simple.

The script is simply terrible. Not just terrible, amateurish and hoary and clichéd and vaguely offensive, as much as it fights broadly against being interpreted as such by finding time for plenty of by-the-numbers pap about the controversy over whether Dr. Penleric, played by Janet McTeer, is exploiting the mountain musicians by recording and publishing their work. McTeer seems to think she’s been cast in a remake of Mary Poppins, and it’s little wonder when Greenwald’s characterization of her is so rote and alien. Sent here to visit her sister in a huff after her lover slash fellow professor denied her a tenured position, of course, she becomes one part Blanche DuBois and two parts the Candice Bergen character in Gandhi or Kevin Costner in Dances with Wolves, the oblivious, priggish “cultured” outsider wrongheadedly expected to be positioned as audience vessel instead of out-of-tune embarrassment.

The doctor eventually becomes warm and understanding because reasons, and even finds time to hurriedly fall in love with a complicated tall dark stranger while rubbing elbows with not just that favored Screenwriting 101 trope, the Evil Land Developer, but everyone tsk-tsking about how she and her crazy papers and crazier machine are just preposterous. Her Change is telegraphed by the discovery of her sister’s homosexuality and thinking that too is preposterous until a man says it’s probably OK and then that’s that, but then the villagers burn their house down cause of th’ kissin’. For all the talk about seeing people for who they really are and not branding them as an “other,” this film certainly finds little resistance in its heart to having every scene that involves “mountain people” conclude with one of them taking out a shotgun and threatening something like “git off my porch” or “git off my property.” There’s even a moonshine-drunk fight that breaks out, at a hoedown, while the band continues to play. There’s a bloody birthing scene because of course there is. There’s moonshine brewing in the woods and a lot of threats to any numbskull who happens to walk in its general direction.

At least, however, such sub-Deliverance idiocy actually distinguishes a film that’s otherwise a collection of such stock story ideas and characters you wonder if it was conceived as a parody. Amid a group of amateurs doing their best with cheap material, Aidan Quinn as Penleric’s foe then lover Tom Bledsoe (!) spews all over everything with jerkishly conceived “intensity” from the Harvey Keitel circa The Piano playbook. Like the writer-director, Quinn does so little with so much and stymies the potentially interesting character of a man who’s fought in wars and has seen something outside but is ferociously protective of his region and its legacy. Instead he’s just angry and unpleasant when it’s called for, warm and wide-eyed otherwise, with little rhyme or reason dictating his change throughout the picture, and no sophistication in his empty eyes to justify his or Greenwald’s sledgehammer treatment of the character.

It’s all good for a laugh, anyway. The film’s dramatic credibility is at its peak when the phonograph machine gets knocked over and destroyed and McTeer gnashes her teeth, clinging her way up mountains, her dress caked in dirt, grunting “I can’t give up! I have to record these songs!” That’s before the love scene that opens with McTeer believing a panther is after her, carefully and inexplicably set up an hour earlier when Tom Bledsoe’s grandmother told her that she would one day encounter a panther that sounds like a person screaming, and she has to disrobe, in the woods, and then the panther will eat her clothes, and then she’ll be OK, but actually this is all just setup for a ra– love scene between McTeer and Quinn, an individual she hated three minutes earlier.

Jane Adams as Penleric’s polite, put-upon sister and Pat Carroll as a local musically prodigious grandma are both great, but the things the script forces them to say… the mind boggles. And they’re not even the ones who have to call something a “doozy” or refer to classical and folk music as “apples and oranges.” Watch Winter’s Bone to see real people living in poverty in an even-handed, non-exploitative fashion. Watch Humboldt County for a beautiful film about a naive city person encountering a vastly different lifestyle. Hell, watch Deliverance for the scary elements of the backwoods South. Watch O Brother, Where Art Thou? for a fine soundtrack of classic Americana. Watch the Twilight Zone episode “Jess-Belle” to see Appalachian folklore lovingly visualized. But for heaven’s sake don’t watch this for any reason.

[Screencaps chosen with the inexhaustible assistance of Katie Page.]

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