The neo-folk-tinged ‘Song One’ is tiresome in its preciousness | News Entertainment

The neo-folk-tinged ‘Song One’ is tiresome in its preciousness

23 Jan 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

Anne Hathaway Falls for a Crooner in ‘Song One’.

Anne Hathaway, endlessly brimming with positivity, has never been shy talking about the sudden storm of bad press she received around the time of her 2013 Oscar win for “Les Miserables,” when many cultural commentators (okay, bloggers) sniped about the actressy exuberance she displayed on the award season circuit.Writer/director Kate Barker-Froyland had to know her debut feature would draw comparisons to John Carney’s modern-day musicals “Once” and “Begin Again.” It follows the same formula — a modest story accentuated by character-sung music performed in a real-life setting.

“Song One,” Kate Barker-Froyland’s anemic first feature, offers a wispy meditation on the healing properties of a pretty folk song — especially when sung by a shaggy-haired troubadour with bedroom eyes and a sensitive soul. But where Carney’s films succeed in capturing the ups and downs of his characters through song, “Song One” falls into a melancholy one-note trap. It’s specifically set in Brooklyn; it lacks the rich characters of the Coens’ film; and it seems thin despite its first-rate cast, which includes two Academy Award winners. The folk-centric film does its best to be simple and genuine, in the spirit of its musical-genre muse, but it equates only to dull, misty-eyed characters and an internal drama that never quite translates to the music or the screen. Mary Steenburgen won her Oscar for Jonathan Demme’s 1980 comedy “Melvin and Howard” (Demme is one of the executive producers on “Song One”), while Anne Hathaway won much more recently for “Les Misérables.” They play mother and daughter in “Song One,” and their scenes together are among the film’s strongest.

First-time writer-director Kate Barker-Froyland uses a medical emergency as a transparent and increasingly creepy pretext for bringing together two aching souls. Anne Hathaway plays Franny, an enigmatic Ph.D. candidate torn away from her anthropological study in Morocco after her mom (Mary Steenburgen) calls with bad news — Franny’s brother, Henry (Ben Rosenfield), was struck by a car. Luckily, along comes Franny (Anne Hathaway), a Ph.D. candidate in anthropology who has abandoned her research in Morocco to attend the bedside of her comatose brother — also a musician — and process her guilt over belittling his career choice.

As her younger sibling lies comatose with no promise of ever waking up, Franny aches over a fight they had six months earlier when Henry dropped out of college to pursue songwriting. Fresh off Christopher Nolan’s blockbuster “Interstellar,” Hathaway’s new leading role in indie film musical “Song One” is doubly challenging, as she also serves as a producer for the first time. In a touching attempt to repair their frayed bond and find a way to communicate with the comatose Henry, Franny visits his haunts and explores his musical tastes, using his journal as a guide. She didn’t anticipate taking on both roles when she first heard of the movie in 2011, a few months after her doomed attempt at co-hosting the Academy Awards with a listless James Franco.

She reaches out to his idol, James Forester (Flynn), and the soft-spoken Brit troubadour becomes a regular in Henry’s hospital room, sitting vigil with Franny and her mother (Mary Steenburgen), and strumming a song or two. (Jenny Lewis and Johnathan Rice wrote the tunes.) The film conveys a fondness for analog-age artifacts like gramophones and handwritten diaries, but Barker-Froyland mistakes such affection for evidence of character. Looking to shake things up and produce movies with her husband, Adam Shulman, Hathaway was intrigued by “Song One,” a script she was sent by her “Rachel Getting Married” director Jonathan Demme. Steenburgen lends a little grit, even as she’s called upon to deliver stock maternal kvetches and, worse, invoke “Paris in the ’70s” as if referring to a key epoch in that city’s history. Hathaway doesn’t do much singing in the film — that’s left mostly to Flynn, who captures the folk spirit with ease — but still, coming off a gut-wrenching performance in “Les Miserables,” one can’t help but draw a comparison between the only two musicals in her film repertoire.

And if her leads remain locked in a romance-novel connection — she misty and mopey; he vulnerable and dreamy — at least it’s one in which the smart girl gets the boy. Unsurprisingly, the new writer/director was pretty psyched about the idea of attaching a brand-name star to her indie film. “I started thinking about it and was like, ‘You know what? Franny finds a ticket stub in Henry’s diary, heads to one of James’s shows and then hangs around afterward to awkwardly introduce herself. (It turns out, “my brother’s in a coma” isn’t a great icebreaker.) Despite an inauspicious beginning, the musician shows up at the hospital with two teas, offering to sing for Henry. She’s perfect for the part, actually,” Barker-Froyland said. “I cast her a couple days later and basically got to re-write the script with her in mind.

Instead, she coyly sent Rice the script, asking him fact-check it from a musician’s perspective. “Johnny came back and said, ‘It’s really good, I actually really like the script. Who’s writing the music?’” Hathaway recalls. “We said, half-joking but deadly serious, ‘You, if you want to!’” And so they did — a soundtrack of haunting indie-folk tunes that echo Franny’s emotions throughout the movie as her affair with James builds.

Franny may buy a gramophone and record random street noise, but those idiosyncracies feel randomly generated given that she is entirely eccentricity-free when she deals with other people. Hathaway hopes the movie’s overarching theme of the healing power of music will speak to audiences, just as it speaks to Franny. “She hears James’s lyrics, and his lyrics are so incredible, and they actually wind up speaking to exactly where she’s at in this precise moment of her life,” Hathaway said. “And they electrify her. So far, she’s heard from fans who had family members fall into a coma who have connected deeply with the movie. “It’s very humbling for people to share that part of themselves with you, and very humbling to know that you made a film that allows them to revisit that in a way,” she said.

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