In Lily Penleric, Greenwald hopes to provide the eyes and ears of us all. Lily is an associate musicology professor spinning her wheels at a small college, a recurring victim of sexual discrimination. After being turned down yet again for a full professorship, Lily packs her bags and, for whatever reason, takes her sophisticated ways and visits her sister at a small school in the Appalachian mountains of western North Carolina. While there, she strikes an anthropological gold mine when she discovers the hill people are singing folk songs whose origins can be traced a century back to the Scotch-Irish songs she'd been studying. This discovery sets off a chain reaction of events overshadowed by Lily's attempt to record a culture's music while learning to respect the culture itself.
That in itself should be the most intriguing part of Songcatcher, the age-old debate about exposing a little-known culture to the rest of the world without it losing that which makes it beautiful in the first place. And if Greenwald had held onto her focus a little, we'd be a better viewer for it. Instead, the filmmaker feels the need to load up her premise with a ton of subplots, most of them love stories in various states of progress, but ultimately an attempt to show how music connects the dots of a region and its people.
Almost before Lily can unpack and make her discovery, we learn (before she does) her sister Eleanor (Jane Adams) is in a covert lesbian relationship with the school's only other teacher (E. Katherine Kerr). Why the relationship exists -- except to provide major third-act drama -- is anyone's guess. Their star pupil Deladis (Emmy Rossum), who sings like a bluegrass angel, is being courted awkwardly by the testosterone-impaired Fate Honeycutt (Greg Cook). And all three women are counseling the pregnant Alice Kincaid (Stephanie Roth), whose two-timing husband can't seem to choose. And then there's the scowling Tom (Aidan Quinn), a Spanish-American war veteran who's as suspicious of Lily's motives as he is the mining company's drive to buy up his people's property. "The only way to preserve our way of life up here is to keep your way of life down there," he tells Lily, who finds him irresistible both as a musician and a potential lover. That accounts for about half the subplots.
Greenwald could be forgiven for trying to show how everyone has a story to tell, which is the wellspring of folk songs. But in an unfortunate case of irony, she fails to tell gripping stories, hoping perhaps for quantity over quality. Even the focal love story between Lily and Tom, that age-old fire-ice match whose only tepid mediator is music (the language of love!), feels half-baked. They seem to wear each other down; their love feels borne out of exhaustion more than passion.
Greenwald's other device is to use Lily's trek through the hillside, seeking to chart and record these jewels of songs, to paint the picture of a people. The characters Lily encounters are cute and quirky enough, but nothing that truly holds us. Having said that, there is a charm (of course) to Tom's golden-voiced grandmother Viney Butler, who scolds Lily when she turns down a dinner offer right after singing into a gramophone for hours on end.
It is these moments when Songcatcher is understandably at its best, as Greenwald takes her sweet time letting the people do what they do. Almost every song is sung from start to finish, and the quivering, yodel-like strains of this magical sound get their due spotlight. In one of the few memorable moments in front of a campfire, Lily gasps, "I've never been anywhere where the music is as much a part of life as it is here. It's like the air you all breathe, and it's beautiful." Neo-bluegrass star Iris DeMent and blues giant Taj Mahal check in with some entertaining cameos as well.
McTeer, who curiously received an Oscar nomination for her performance in 1999's Tumbleweeds, never really catches fire here. She knows one expression, wide-eyed and smirky, and tries to employ it for every reaction she gives. Quinn counters with a lot of grumbling, making their chemistry that much less appealing.
By the end of the movie, as Greenwald struggles to tie up the many loose ends in Songcatcher, we're less concerned about what muse Lily will follow so much as where to find the soundtrack.