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Songcatcher: An Unintentional Comedy

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Songcatcher is listed on IMDB has having five nominations and five wins for various prizes at film festivals as prestigious as Sundance itself.

There are some films that win awards for the wrong reasons. However, there are two prizes that I readily give to this film: the Most Hysterically Terrible and Most Hysterically Unaware of its Terribleness awards.

This epic, released in 2000, was both directed and written by Maggie Greenwald, who has since—and before—done absolutely nothing that you will recognize (though her other films range from flicks like The Ballad of Little Joe, which I am judging completely by its title, and a 2002 Lindsay Lohan film, which I am judging completely by its lead actress and obscurity).

The movie’s basic plot follows the story of musicologist Lily Penleric, who stumbles across a treasure trove of mountain songs while visiting her sister in an Appalachian schoolhouse and decides that she has to record them. Simple enough—and even more intriguing when you throw a name like Emmy Rossum of Phantom of the Opera fame into the billing. It sounds like a movie ripe with mountain heritage and a fabulous soundtrack.

Add to that, though, subplot after meaningless subplot. We have a violent and armed old woman, a husband who leaves his wife and family to live with another woman (and a preacher, who apparently doesn’t mind), a crusade against chauvinism in the musicology department, an affair between the crusader and the biggest chauvinist in said musicology department, a controversy-causing pair of lesbians, an angsty teenage boy, and a passionate relationship sprouted from the truest hatred.

And my friends, that’s not half of it. It seems dear Maggie Greenwald just couldn’t make up her mind. The problem lies not so much in the abundance of plot twists, but in the fact that only a handful of them come close to resolution, and none are given time to develop to a point at which we care about them.

The mix is complete with a healthy dose of Appalachian backwoods accents, some well-executed and some…well…let’s just say that Emmy Rossum doesn’t sound as much like an operatic diva in this particular film.

You may be thinking, “with a title like Songcatcher, this film must at least have a good soundtrack.” I will give a nod to the musicians who worked on it—there is some astonishing talent and some good traditional music in the score. However, every time an actor opens his or her mouth to have their song caught, take an Advil—for your stomach muscles. The accents are exaggerated and, while historically accurate, the style nonetheless seems out of place within the film. Probably because we were too busy wondering how the newest subplot would resolve itself to remember that Dr. Penleric is supposed to be catching songs.

This lapse in narrative, however, is made up for, since each song is about three verses too long for any Hollywood-oriented viewer. Though apart from the movie the songs are, admittedly, beautiful in their own right as a reflection of Appalachian culture and folk music, extreme suspense and tension in the plot(s?) cannot be suddenly solved by a 7-minute, a capella ballad.

When the film finally—and I mean finally—does come to a conclusion, it does so with the most ridiculous deux ex machina I have ever witnessed. It involves a jilted woman whose backstory we don’t remember because her time was split between too many minor characters. It also involves a shotgun. At the most inopportune and senseless time, when another subplot is in the midst of what the audience thinks might be the only resolution they will get to see.

To say anything more would be to give away the best—aka, worst—part of the movie, but suffice to say that the movie simply ends. With one shot, everything is over, and, best of all, nothing is resolved. There are no consequences for the murder, and any plot twist that happened during the film is left wandering in the woods, overshadowed by the tragedy.

The only credit I give in this movie is to whoever made the beautiful Appalachian Mountains in the background—and I am certain that the director had nothing to do with it.

There is no conceivable way to convey the humor of watching this film in print, but consider yourself warned not to take it seriously. If you do, however, go in expecting the terrific atrocity to cinema that is this movie, you will come out with side-splitting disbelief for days to come.

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About Jen Herrmann