Every time it raises up its voice in song, the period drama "Songcatcher" comes very close to achieving greatness. In fact, the film comes so close to reaching that cinematic pinnacle that it can be forgiven for stumbling and more than just once or twice when it's actually trying to tell a story.
So it's fortunate that music is what propels this quaint little film, as well as its solid cast (which took home a special jury prize from the 2000 Sundance Film Festival for "outstanding ensemble performance").
In fact, together with the previously released breakout hit "O Brother, Where Are Thou?" it provides a potent, one-two punch of movies that are helping revive interest in bluegrass and folk music.
"Songcatcher" (the title refers to Lily Penleric, played by British actress Janet McTeer, from "Tumbleweeds") is the story of a turn-of-the-century musicologist who has recently been denied tenure at her university. Believing the decision may have been based on sexism, she leaves in disgust and heads to the Appalachians to find her younger sister Elna (Jane Adams), who has become a schoolteacher in the backwoods community of Clover.
In addition to her sister, Lily also discovers a treasure trove of "pure" folk ballads, which have been passed from generation to generation and which appear to have come from Great Britain. Thrilled by this discovery, she becomes consumed with the task of "collecting" the songs.
However, she encounters some resistance from Tom Bledsoe (Aidan Quinn), a bootlegger and local musician wary of outsiders. But just as soon as she deals with that problem, she's horrified to see the outside world encroaching, in the form of development.
Writer/director Maggie Greenwald ("The Ballad of Little Jo") may have some clunky methods of resolving the myriad story strands here, but she does an effective job of directing her cast, especially McTeer, Quinn and scene-stealing Pat Carroll, who are all superb. (However, that's not meant to slight talented newcomer Emmy Rossum, who also played the young version of Audrey Hepburn in a recent television movie.)
But as good as their performances are, the real stars of the film may be composer David Mansfield and balladry adviser Sheila Kay Adams, who selected the songs used and coached the performers.
"Songcatcher" is rated PG-13 for violence (a drunken brawl and some gunplay), brief sexual fumblings, vulgarity (flatulence), brief hospital gore (a scene of childbirth), fleeting female nudity and use of racial epithets. Running time: 105 minutes.