For today's generation of young music lovers who've grown up on MTV, Napster, burnable CDs and MP3 files, it's probably hard for them to fathom a time when music a) wasn't immediately accessible, b) was played from a rotating cylinder-based phonograph and c) was performed by musicians and recorded by technicians who were more interested with the involved art than in making a buck.
Of course, there was such a time long before Madonna, the Beatles or heck, even a young Frank Sinatra, and one can experience part of that in writer/director Maggie Greenwald's appropriately titled, period film, "Songcatcher."
Set in the early 20th century, the story's about a methodical musicologist from the big city who travels to rural Appalachia, discovers a unique localized form of English ballads and then sets out to document and record them for the rest of the world to hear, all while experiencing the flavor and laid-back lifestyle of the environs.
To no one's surprise - especially for anyone who's seen any such big city character out of water story such as "Doc Hollywood" - she runs into obstacles (the locals don't trust her, etc.) that threaten to derail her plans. She also comes to realize that her big city ways and mentality clash with the rural lifestyle but eventually discovers what's best for her.
Greenwald ("The Ballad of Little Jo," "Home Remedy") thankfully doesn't mount such developments as if she's the first storyteller to think of them, but at the same time she doesn't mold them enough through her own voice and vision to make them interesting, different or memorable. The end result is that nothing's ever terribly surprising and we're never particularly moved in one way or the other by the general nature of what occurs.
The filmmaker's plot - loosely based on the similar real life work of Olive Dame Campbell - is as unhurried as the local lifestyle portrayed within it. Generally effective, the plot nearly effortlessly moves the story from one point to the next, even if some of the moments in the second half -- such as that related to the discovery of a lesbian couple that contemporary audiences will obviously know can only mean future trouble - are both predictable and borderline melodramatic.
Greenwald does load up her picture with a great many characters, some of which end up being superfluous and/or not as important or influential with the story as one might initially expect. Nevertheless, what makes the film work and remain engaging are the performances and the period music that enraptures or flows forth from their characters.
A far cry from the character she embodied in her Oscar nominated performance in "Tumbleweeds," Janet McTeer ("Waking the Dead," "The King is Alive") is quite good in the role of Lily, although the character's intellectual/scientific aloofness prevents us from really getting to know and/or care about this woman.
In fact, some viewers may develop the desire to reach out and shake the character, hoping she'll loosen up, let her hair down and enjoy the lifestyle along with the music that she so obviously respects. That, of course, is the point and the protagonist does eventually go through a welcomed, if expected transformation.
Aidan Quinn ("This is My Father," "Michael Collins") delivers yet another solid performance as the local man who's been to the outside and returned, now wary of any outsiders, but otherwise at peace with the world and his place in it. The actor seems natural in the part, and the chemistry - both adversarial and then romantic - between his and McTeer's characters comes off as credible.
The scene stealer award, however, goes to Pat Carroll ("With Six You Get Eggroll, the voice of Ursula in "The Little Mermaid") as the farm wise, but uneducated grandmother who warms up to the protagonist once she hears her own recorded voice for the first time. The actress perfectly plays the part and is a delight to watch whenever she appears on the screen.
Professional opera singer Emmy Rossum (who makes her feature film debut) is also quite good as the young local girl with the incredible and authentic sounding voice, even if the Elly Mae Clampett inspired, wide-eyed drawl occasionally feels a bit thick. Other performances from the likes of Jane Adams ("Wonder Boys," "Happiness") and E. Katherine Kerr ("The Impostors," "The Siege") as a lesbian couple and Greg Russell Cook ("The Prince of Central Park") as a short-fused local are all fine, while David Patrick Kelly ("Last Man Standing," "Dreamscape") is credible in yet the umpteenth time he's played the smarmy villain.
Being a film about mountain folk music, however, the highlight of the film is the sound of various such songs whether played as part of the action or simply heard on the background soundtrack. While not as catchy as some of what was heard from the Soggy Bottom Boys and others in "O Brother Where Art Thou?" the collection of folk numbers sounds great and Greenwald has included artists such as blues legend Taj Mahal in the film to perform some of it.
If you love country and folk music of old, it's unlikely that you'll walk away from this picture disappointed. For those who aren't big fans, the movie is a decent introduction to such music. As a straightforward film it might not offer anything new that we haven't previously seen, yet the solid performances and that musical selection should manage to hold most viewers' attention, particularly if they're looking for something outside the typical, mainstream Hollywood offering. "Songcatcher" rates as a 6 out of 10.