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Fathers and Daughters:
In Their Own Words
by Mariana Cook
(Discounted Paperback from Amazon)
This little picture, which was made in 1999 and released in 2001 was painful for me on two counts. The first is the music and the pain I feel about it is the pain of joy at hearing music that is so real and uncompromising, so true to its source and so intensely felt... and so rarely heard. What a brave little movie to embrace it so thoroughly. I embrace the people who made it!
The other thing that pained me was the amateur directing by Maggie Greenwald who previously wrote and directed the "Ballad of Little Jo" (1993). Since this is her third directorial effort, there's little excuse for the awkwardness of the staging and much of the writing. It's as though she has no idea how to put a scene together nor to use her camera and editing to maximize her actors' performance. Moreover, feminist points seem to be overriding dramatic and creative considerations.
As a filmmaker, I sense that the actors filled the directorial gap but lament how their performances were diffused by this lack of control with the medium. They all deserve better.
Putting aside all technical considerations, a lover of folk music can revel in this movie as it deals with the discovery, in 1907, of the music of Appalachia as it was developed by the mountain people through a couple of centuries from the Englishmen and Scots who brought it to the mountains of America. This is music from the important 1882 compilation, "The English and Scottish Popular Ballads" by Francis J. Child.
The discoverer here is musicologist/music teacher from England, Dr. Lily Penleric (Janet McTeer) who, upon hearing her first Appalachian ballad, recognizes the importance it has in the study of the music she knows quite differently at home.
Quitting her teaching job, she has come to the small mountain community to be with her sister Elna (Jane Adams) who runs a school for the children of the area, little suspecting the rich purity of the local music and how it will transform her life and career. With the recent introduction of the cylinder recorder, she becomes one of the first collectors of the music, recording every singer she can find and having them repeat their songs so she can write them down for a book, much as Child did before her.
In this, she would be the forerunner of such collectors of American folk song as John and Allen Lomax (Library of Congress collection) who discovered Leadbelly, John Jacob Niles, Chris Strachwitz (Arhoolie Records) and others whom Greenwald depended on to provide historical credibility to her fictional character's work and dedication.
Driven by her project, obsessed, single-minded and self-absorbed, Penleric goes about her business in a community that is immersed in its problems. Grinding poverty, the threats of land acquisition by a mining company, the persecution of alternative life styles, adolescent love problems -- all are pieces in the somewhat melodramatic texture of this rural enclave.
For a folk music lover, the quest is full of rewards, allowing us to see and hear such music being sung. We hear Taj Mahal, Hazel Dickens, David Patrick Kelly and many more. The film introduces (to film) the young actress/singer, Emmy Rossum (playing Deladis Slocumb, a local orphan girl living with sister Elna), whose way with a traditional country song is worthy of all her predecessors while also making it completely her own. Wait'll you hear her rendering of "Barbara Allen", the first song that makes Penleric realize the transformation of the music she knows from the Child collection and which she has taught.
Her project goes on to record the music of grandmotherly Viney Butler (singer Pat Carroll) who sings a wonderful, "Single Girl" at the appropriate time in the story. Viney Butler's grandson, farmer Tom Bledsoe (Aidan Quinn) is dubious of Penleric's intentions and intrusion into the community which values highly its insulation from the "big city" down the mountain. The obstruction he creates falls away as he sees the pleasure she brings the locals as Penleric honors their music and, with it, their lives. It's not long before he seeks the pleasure of the feelings that develop between them, showing us that there's a romantic side to the strong-willed Penleric. The story goes on, but it's the music that is so memorable, and I can't say enough about it.
In one of the episodes, much is made of the uniqueness of the singing of Rose Gentry, played by no less than Iris Dement, a name that will have considerable meaning to folk lovers. The moment of Penleric's discovery of this gem of a singer is built up to an expectation of something singular. For all its buildup, Dement's song goes beyond. Her "Pretty Saro" was, for me, an other-worldly experience, especially in seeing her do it. Dement is included among the actors in the credits despite the fact she doesn't have a single word of dialogue. But no one will care. Let's hope Warner's finds another movie to put her in.
The same should be said for Emmy Rossum, who previously appeared on 5 TV projects ("Genius", 1999; "Grace and Glorie", 1998). She is best known for her role as young Audrey Hepburn (12-16) in "The Audrey Hepburn Story" which she made in 2000, her next project after "Songcatcher". She did a guest appearance on "Law and Order" in 1990 (when she was 4) and again on "Snoops" in 1999. My special request of her is that she makes a CD.
The movie is infused with the spirit of Janet McTeer's personna as it pulls together the story and its disparate elements. It was no accident that she was nominated for an Oscar for "Tumbleweeds". Here, she's the formidable presence that illuminates the drama. The wonderful Aidan Quinn, behind a heavy "mountain" beard, doesn't come out so well (no fault of his) but ably fills his role. I doubt they received anything but scale, if that, but the dedication of these performers to the film is total.
The sound track album of "Songcatcher" contains much of the music of the film but, in an obvious attempt to sell CDs from the bins, adds other material and excludes "Mattie Groves", a song which was heard several times in the movie. Emmylou Harris sings "Barbara Allen" over the final credits of the film and adds a version of this song to the literature that is awe-inspiring in its utter perfection of phrasing and control. Be forewarned. Do not exit the theatre too soon to hear it.
All of which is to say that if you're interested in English and Scottish ballads, in traditional folk music, in the inimitable Appalachian style with those songs, this is a must-see film. You'll also want the album, despite the discrepancies. If you don't know this music, this movie is risky -- you may not want to stay with it. Finally, if you know you hate this music, as Tony Soprano might say, fuggedaboudit.
Cinematographer Enrique Chediak supported the effort very ably with his Appalachian "look" to the woods, the fragile houses, the sturdy faces.
In the final analysis, however awkward the direction and feminist point-making, I give a hug to Maggie Greenwald for doing everything she could to pull off a film that rejoices in musical material that can only be considered uncommercial. What film developer would do anything but dismiss it? She got it done. It won a Special Jury Prize for Outstanding Ensemble performance at Sundance. I hope she does it again.
Rated S, for Soulful.
Listen to sample tracks. Get the album.