Songcatcher opens in 1907, with its central character, Lily Penleric (Janet McTeer), entranced by her own performance as she plays piano and sings a ballad. Once finished, the priggish musicologist turns to her audience, a group of college students, and points out the difference between the "civilized" music they've just heard and the unpolished sounds of the commoners. That, of course, precisely the type of close-minded sentiment that Lily will reject over the course of the film.
On summer break from her university teaching position, Lily heads to Appalachia to visit her schoolteacher sister, Elna (Jane Adams). Once there, amid the sprawling greenery of the landscape and the dilapidated shacks of the mountain people, the professor discovers that the locals, while rustic and uneducated, do have something of an untapped musical tradition. So rich and varied is the mountain music that Lily endeavors to capture each inhabitant's songs on her cumbersome recording equipment, with the intention of writing a book about her findings and making a bigger name for herself in academia. Complicating her professional goals are an unexpected romance with one of the uncharacteristically articulate natives, Tom Bledsoe (Aidan Quinn), and the community's discovery of Elna's affair with another woman.
Though writer/director Maggie Greenwald (The Ballad of Little Jo) wraps her story around a wincingly trite yarn--the character who triumphantly overcomes her stereotypical views through exposure to the thing she stereotypes--she keeps the film from going down in flames by focusing on the music. As Lily goes around collecting her songs, Greenwald treats the audience to rendition after splendid rendition of folksy tunes about heartache and loss, love and redemption. At its best, Songcatcher is able to connect dramatically with its music, driving home the sense that the characters are defined by their songs. (The cast includes country singer Iris DeMent, bluesman Taj Mahal, and bluegrass legend Hazel Dickens.)
The acting is strong; McTeer, Oscar-nominated for Tumbleweeds, does an admirable job in making Lily seem cold but not insensitive. And while Greenwald resists some of the obvious clichés about the heightening of cultural awareness (ironically enough, the subplot dealing with Elna's homosexuality is handled more subtly than Lily's path to accepting the country folk), the story does get mired down in sentimentality. At Songcatcher's worst, when the music stops, so does the magic.