The year is 1907, and the highly independent and intelligent Dr. Lily Penleric (Janet McTeer), a noted musicologist, has once again been passed over for promotion by the college at which she teaches. Angry, she decides to pull up stakes and go to visit her sister, Elna (Jane Adams), who is one of two women teaching at a settlement school in the Appalachian Mountains of North Carolina.
When Janet arrives, she hears one of her sister's helpers, Deladis (Emma Rossum), singing an old folk song that she recognizes. It is being sung in a way that she has never before heard it sung. Upon discovering that the song was handed down generationally in this insular community, she realizes that she may actually be hearing the song as it may originally have been intended to be sung. Excited by her discovery, she sets about capturing as many songs as she can from these fiercely proud, mountain people. In effect, she is memorializing a rich, oral, musical history.
Her project takes Janet on a voyage of self-discovery, both personal and professional. Along the way, she becomes immersed in the the lives and traditions of these mountain people, realizing what an integral part music plays in their lives. While poor in terms of creature comforts and leading a harsh, hardscrabble sort of life, these mountain folks have a culturally rich, oral tradition and are a veritable treasure trove of old songs.
While catching the music and lyrics of these old songs for posterity and wider appreciation, notating her discovery of these songs for a book that she hopes to write, Dr. Penleric makes the acquaintance of a number of mountain men and women, including a tough old bird, Viney Butler (Pat Carroll). This leads to meeting with her suspicious but intelligent, talented, and good looking grandson, Tom Bledsoe (Aidan Quinn), with whom she ultimately developes a passionate relationship that correlates nicely to her passion for music.
A number of other subplots are woven throughout this film. One involves her sister, Elna, who becomes involved with a love that dare not speak its name. There is also a love triangle between two of the mountain woman and the husband of one of them. Young love and coming of age is also a theme touched upon. Meanwhile, a mining company seeks to buy out the land from under these people for a mere pittance. All of these subplots serve to illustrate the often harsh reality of life in the mountains. The only problem that I found was with the subplot involving Elna and her lover, Harriet, in terms of the complacency that surrounds what ultimately happens to Harriet. It was a most disturbing resolution that did not ring altogether true. Still, the overall strength of the film is such that it overcomes this incongruity.
Janet McTeer gives a no nonsense performance, and the way that the music seems to transfix and transform her is a joy to behold. Jane Adams, as the sister who is having a same sex love affair, gives an exquisitely beautiful and sensitive performance, as does E. Katherine Kerr in the role of Harriet, the settlement school teacher with whom she is involved. Aidan Quinn gives an intelligent and thoughtful performance as a mountain man who has been to the outside world and found it wanting. Pat Carroll is sensational as Viney Butler, the mountain woman who takes the vicissitudes of life in stride and wears many hats: mother, grandmother, midwife, musician, singer, and oral historian. Emma Rossum, however, is positively radiant as the young, fresh faced, mountain lass with a smile and voice that will tear your heart apart. She is a wonderful, young performer with operatic training and the ability to sing like Dolly Parton. What a find!
Cameo appearances by Taj Mahal, Iris Dement, and others serve to further enrich this film. The music and songs are played and sung live, which makes them resonate with authenticity and adds a vibrancy that might otherwise be lost. The folk dancing is a joy to watch, as the mountain people gather aound for a jamboree. The film, shot on location, captures all the physical beauty of the terrain, as well as the rusticity and harshness of life in the mountains. This is simply a great film that is well worth having in one's personal collection.
The DVD is first rate, providing a clear, quality picture and great sound. It offers a wonderful commentary with the director, Maggie Greenwald, that explains the underpinnings of the film. There is also an interesting feature on the making of the film. All in all, it is a must have DVD for music lovers, as well as for those who simply enjoy a well made and beautifully acted film. Bravo!
The setting of mountains of North Carolina were beautiful. Read more