How Song One rises above lazy cliches

23 Jan 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

‘Song One’ review: Anne Hathaway duets.

Kate Barker-Froyland’s Song One — the 2014 Sundance-premiering film that finally hits limited release this week — is the rare movie that thrives on simplicity.Millburn’s Anne Hathaway, who stars in the indie drama, also produced with her husband, Adam Shulman, with some help from old pal Jonathan Demme (who cast the actress in one of her best parts in “Rachel Getting Married”). Anne Hathaway stars as Franny, a PhD candidate in anthropology who returns to New York when she learns that her estranged brother Henry (Ben Rosenfield) is in a coma.

Meanwhile Kate Barker-Froyland, who was an assistant on “The Devil Wears Prada” all those years ago, wrote and directed, and the emotional mainspring of the story — the huge bond between siblings – is one that Hathaway clearly feels and has spoken about. Faced with the possibility of losing him, and confronted by a mother (Mary Steenburgen) who’s still upset with Franny’s decision to move away and isolate herself in her work, Franny is given the jolt she needs to get out of her own head and see her brother as a person and not a sibling. But then, back in the family home, Hathaway finds his walls papered with posters for a young English folkie — and, conveniently, a ticket to the man’s upcoming show. Franny takes solace by sleeping in Henry’s room, listening to his music and staring at the posters of his idol, a reclusive singer-songwriter named James (musician Johnny Flynn).

She finally listens to the music he’s been sending her for months, and begins to collect the instruments he loves and the environmental sounds of his world. But then the musician enters the picture, played by real-life strummer Johnny Flynn — and the situation not only feels crudely contrived, but he’s such a cup of weak tea it’s hard to see what Hathaway sees in him (let alone the devoted fans who still follow him around, five years after his last album). You want to get back to Hathaway and her relationship with her brother, and mother — Steenburgen is excellent, as always — but instead we get bogged down in this soggy romance. In her journey to provoke her brother into consciousness, Franny also meets James Forester (Johnny Flynn), a musician trapped in the monotony of his mid-level indie fame.

From then on, he serves as the ideal distraction, taking Franny to shows in Williamsburg and sharing confidences as they wait for Henry’s condition to change. And then the movie itself falls in love, not only with Flynn, but his morose music scene, padding things out with entire (and entirely uninvolving) songs, and singing its own hymn to amazing Williamsburg, land of raves, coffeehouses and overpriced lofts. (Yes, there is a character billed only as “Tattooed Hipster.”) The locations, at least, feel very real and Hathaway is as emotionally naked and raw and present as always. Barker-Froyland is clearly aiming to re-create the success of John Carney’s “Once.” The director does deftly incorporate a plaintive, neo-folk soundtrack from Jenny Lewis and Jonathan Rice.

But instead, Barker-Froyland uses the narrative to explore the isolation each character is caught in, and the ways sensory experiences inspire new perspectives. She gushes about the way Wong Kar-Wai incorporated “California Dreamin” into a soundtrack for his heroine in Chungking Express; how integral Nick Cave’s show turns out to be in Wings of Desire; and most notably, a scene from Robert Altman’s Nashville. “I adore the scene where Keith Carradine is singing onstage and Lily Tomlin, Shelly Duvall, and Geraldine Chaplin are sitting in the audience, listening,” she says. “The way the song narrates exactly what’s going on emotionally — how each woman is moved by it, and feels that this song is being sung for her — is masterful.” Song One plays like a longer version of that Nashville scene. Throughout the film, music serves as idiosyncratic provocation of any number of competing emotions, from sadness to happiness to a kind of feverish release. The film pauses on scenes of musicians plying their craft, allowing for Franny to deal with her pain, and by extension, the audience to experience its own response.

Her mother urges her to sing along with America for James and herself — the sound of her voice, even full of embarrassment, holding the power of a lost moment in time. James won’t magically become a whole, perfect singer-songwriter if he goes to bed with Franny, and she won’t become a new person by experiencing Henry’s world or helping break James out of a rut. Song One is like the dance floors of the many Brooklyn venues Franny visits — offering a different and worthwhile way to connect, and reminding us of the small joys we absorb along the way.

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