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Hearing America singing

Review: 'Songcatcher' a lyrical ode to music, love

By Paul Clinton
CNN Reviewer

(CNN) -- "Songcatcher" is a beautifully crafted story about a time and place rarely captured on film: the remote villages of the Appalachian Mountains, circa 1907. The film, starring Janet McTeer, Aidan Quinn and Pat Carroll, is both a sweet love story and a musical history book, examining the roots of rock, bluegrass, folk and country music.

McTeer stars as Lily Penleric, a turn-of-the-century musicologist and strong-headed feminist ahead of her time. She has just been passed over once again in favor of a man for promotion at the university where she teaches music.

But refusing to be beaten by the male-dominated system, she heads to the Appalachians -- dragging along a huge, primitive recording device -- to document the region's music. She's about to become a "songcatcher," a collector of music. Once there, she finds the rhythms and lyrics that changed the sound of music.

Listening to the sounds

Appalachian music is one of America's most basic musical forms. It emerged during the 19th century when African banjos and rhythms met European fiddles and ballads. Soon the sounds merged with Irish and English folk songs and the groundwork for many American forms of music was laid.

Scene from 'Songcatcher'

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Lily settles in with her sister Elna (Tony award-winner Jane Adams) and Elna's companion and fellow schoolteacher Harriet Tolliver (E. Katherine Kerr). Soon she finds herself under the tutelage of a local music expert, Viney Butler (played by Pat Carroll). With the help of a golden-throated orphan named Deladis Slocumb (Emmy Rossum), the two show Lily the richness of their musical heritage.

At first, Lily is indifferent to the actual men and women she meets, and listens only to their remarkable music. But gradually she's drawn into their everyday lives and finds herself falling in love with the people and their way of life.

Among those people is Butler's grandson, Tom Bledsoe, played by Quinn. Tom served in the Spanish-American War and is wise to the ways of the outside world. He's seen the coal and lumber companies exploit his people, and now he thinks Lily is doing the same thing -- this time stealing their musical legacy. They fight like cats and dogs. Of course, they fall in love.

Music of joy, sadness and celebration

Part unlikely love story, part American music chronicle, "Songcatcher" is a remarkable film that captures your heart and makes your toes tap at the same time. The abject poverty of the area during that era is softened a bit, but the beauty of the mountains and of the people who live there cannot be denied.

"Songcatcher" examines the roots of rock, bluegrass, folk and country music  

Writer-director Maggie Greenwald researched the Appalachian culture before creating the love story revolving around Lily and Tom, and the music that bound them. Her script takes viewers on a journey deep into the heart and soul of American music -- music full of joy, sadness, pain and sheer celebration.

Greenwald also shot the movie on location in Madison County, North Carolina, and she allowed the music itself to become another character in this film. All the performers sing their own songs, and the results are haunting and at times hilarious.

McTeer is brilliant in the lead role. This British actress is perhaps best known for her Golden Globe-winning performance in the film "Tumbleweeds," for which she was also nominated for an Academy Award, and also won a Tony Award for her portrayal of Nora in the Broadway revival of Henrik Ibsen's "A Doll's House." McTeer brings a deep humanity to her roles, and her performance as Lily is tough, touching and grounded in a strong reality.

Quinn brings understated strength and nobility to his role as Tom, and Carroll once again proves she's a remarkable character actress in her performance as Viney, the shotgun-toting grandma.

"Songcatcher" is not perfect, but this charming story will transport you to a time and a location where music was intrinsic to life itself.

"Songcatcher" opens nationwide this weekend. The film is rated PG-13.

• Songcatcher

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