Songcatcher (1999) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski) and Tuna

Great idea, humanistic attitude, beautiful and authentic music. Do you need more?

How about the story?

Well, that couldn't be much worse. For the record: a pompous, condescending musicologist comes to the backwoods and starts archiving the local songs. She eventually comes to love the locals.

In terms of the script, this one-dimensional film has every possible cliche: 

  • the condescending attitude of the male professors toward her discovery
  • the lesbians
  • the lyin', cheatin' husbands
  • the women abandoned to despair by lyin', cheatin' husbands (have you determined yet that the script was written by a woman)
  • the shifty coal company official tryin' to hornswaggle the honest mountain folk out of their land
  • the coal company owner who refers to the mountaineers as savages
  • the fact that the simple folk turn out to have true wisdom and intelligence 
  • the scene where the retarded-lookin' bumpkin plays his musical instrument better than Eric Clapton
  • the ol' black musician
  • the loveable, feisty ol' grannie who says stuff like "you boys is actin' like a right buncha assholes"
  • the moonshine stills
  • the city musicologist who falls in love with the sensitive country bumpkin
  • numerous tragedies, calamities, and melodramas

Not only that, but the entire movie is determined to be uplifting and worthy, and does more preaching than Sunday morning cable TV. Just ignore all that.  The story isn't even necessary, because watching this without the singing would be like watching Oklahoma! without the singing. In fact, I don't really know if it makes sense to say that this movie or Oklahoma! would be a bad movie without the music, because the music is the whole point.

So enjoy the singin' and pluckin'.

I did.

DVD Info

  • Widescreen anamorphic, 1.85:1

  • Full-length director commentary

  • three deleted scenes


Jane Addams exposes a breast very briefly when she is discovered with her lover

Janet McTeer is seen in a semi-transparent blouse. She has a tremendously sexy body, although she rarely exposes anything.

Tuna's comments in yellow:

Songcatcher (2000) is a Maggie Greenwald film about a female musicologist who is passed over for a full professorship at an anonymous eastern private college, and joins her sister at a mountain "settlement school" in the mountains. There she discovers a musical tradition going back to ancient English and Scottish ballads, literally unchanged from when their ancestors first immigrated.

The story is set at the turn of the century, which is several years early for this discovery, but nonetheless is based on an historical event that marked the beginning of country and western music. In a good commentary track, Greenwald explains exactly where she took artistic license with the true story, and why. Where she didn't take any license at all was in the music, which was performed exactly as collected in the 20s.

The initial settlement of the mountain folk was prompted as much by coal mining companies as anything. Missionaries lived among them, and started schools to turn the hill folks into modern citizens. There were also lay settlement schools, privately owned, which had the goal of educating, but preserving the local culture. The musicologist, played by Janet McTeer, gradually manages to become accepted by the suspicious local residents and starts collecting this amazing work. Meanwhile, we learn that her sister, played by Jane Adams, is in a lesbian relationship with the director of the school. The writer/director essentially doesn't believe that all school teachers were sexless old spinsters, and wanted to give them some sexuality. In fact, she created a love interest of some kind for every woman in the film. The musicologist herself ends up falling for one of these crude hill folk.

I adored this film, but then it is decidedly my sort of film. The scenery was breathtaking, and the performances very convincing. I also enjoyed the cultural insights. Overall, however, it was the music that carried the story. As a 60s vintage folk aficionado, I recognized most of the songs in the film as the ones that influenced people like Joan Baez, The Kingston Trio, and Bob Dylan. Taj Mahal even stopped in long enough to write and perform a traditional sounding banjo piece.

The Critics Vote

  • Ebert 3/4

  • Special jury prize at Sundance

The People Vote ...

  • With their votes ... IMDB summary: IMDb voters score it 7.2 
  • With their dollars ... $3 million domestic gross. Maxed out at 104 screens.
IMDb guideline: 7.5 usually indicates a level of excellence, about like three and a half stars from the critics. 6.0 usually indicates lukewarm watchability, about like two and a half stars from the critics. The fives are generally not worthwhile unless they are really your kind of material, about like two stars from the critics. Films under five are generally awful even if you like that kind of film, equivalent to about one and a half stars from the critics or less, depending on just how far below five the rating is.

My own guideline: A means the movie is so good it will appeal to you even if you hate the genre. B means the movie is not good enough to win you over if you hate the genre, but is good enough to do so if you have an open mind about this type of film. C means it will only appeal to genre addicts, and has no crossover appeal. D means you'll hate it even if you like the genre. E means that you'll hate it even if you love the genre. F means that the film is not only unappealing across-the-board, but technically inept as well.

Based on this description, both reviewers conclude that the film is a C+. Scoop says, "Fantastic movie if you are interested in the authentic folk music of Appalachia, but if that doesn't ring your chimes, the movie itself is about as profound as Oklahoma!" Tuna says, " If you don't like folk music and have no interest in the culture, you won't find much to like here. If this is your kind of film, it is amazingly good."

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