Songcatcher won the Special Jury Prize for an outstanding ensemble performance at the 2000 Sundance Film Festival. Notice that it did not win any other prizes, especially for writing. There are so many good things about Songcatcher, but writer/director Maggie Greenwald (The Ballad of Little Jo, Kill-Off) still feels the need to add in unnecessary plot elements that do little except dilute the power of the music in the film. Songcatcher shares are superficial connection to O Brother, Where Art Thou? in their extensive use of folk music. Where O Brother, Where Art Thou? used folk music to set a mood and conjure up a different time, folk music is the essence of Songcatcher.

Professor of music Lily Penleric (Janet McTeer, The King is Alive, Waking the Dead) rediscovers this music in the heart of Appalachia on a visit to her sister Elna (Jane Adams, The Anniversary Party, Wonder Boys). Penleric is thinking about leaving her position at a university, because she is facing a glass ceiling (the first, and only necessary politically correct element in Songcatcher). The people in Appalachia have little contact with the outside (and have no desire to change this), and the ballads they pass from one generation to the next closely resemble the original versions from across the Atlantic. Penleric sets out to record and transcribe these songs, which she views as a treasure.

Some locals greet her enthusiastically. Young Deladis Slocumb (Emmy Rossum, The Audrey Hepburn Story, It Had to Be You) and elderly Viney Butler (Pat Carroll, A Goofy Movie, The Little Mermaid) eagerly sing their songs to Penleric. Butler's grandson Tom Bledsoe (Aidan Quinn, Music of the Heart, In Dreams) is much more hesitant to help. The worst character is Fate Honeycutt (Greg Cook). His only purpose in the movie is to do something stupid when the story gets slow. Penleric, with her city ways and misconceptions about the backwardness of the mountain people, grows to appreciate their slower, more traditional way of life. But the way that Greenwald portrays some of the minor characters only furthers stereotypes she is trying to have Penleric shatter.

Greenwald does cast musicians in small roles including Taj Mahal, Iris Dement, and Hazel Dickens. The soundtrack includes music by Emmylou Harris, Allison Moorer, and others. The music, often complemented with banjos and other similarly rustic instruments, comes through crisp and clear, providing a glimpse into a forgotten way of life. Greenwald falters when Penleric's quest for music takes a backseat to some thoroughly modern subplots. People rally against a pair of lesbians, before a message of tolerance emerges. A large oil company is also trying to force out the people to get to their land. Murder, bigamy, fire, and other pointless twists clutter the story, and take precious time away from the music.

Mongoose Rates It: Okay.
1 hour, 49 minutes, Rated PG-13 for sexual content and an intense scene of childbirth.

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