A music-centric romance that lacks ambition and misses some big opportunities.
With a little push one way or the other, Song One could have been something totally different. It could have been a cheesy romance drama about two lost souls serendipitously colliding in a night club in the hip Williamsburg, Brooklyn music scene…but it really isn’t that cheesy or dramatic. It could have been a dark, creepy thriller about a boy and a girl falling in love as they sip Prosecco over the comatose body of the girl’s little brother; that all happens, but the creepiness is totally unintentional (which makes it even creepier, somehow). Song One is neither of those movies, though those sound like movies I’d much rather watch. What first time writer-director Kate Barker-Froyland’s made is a millennial romance that just, sort of, stands still. None of its elements are egregiously poor, but as a whole it’s just, you know…there.
The film pulls a fast one on us in its opening, in which a young street musician named Henry (Ben Rosenfield) is struck by a car and sent into a coma. His somewhat estranged sister, Franny (Anne Hathaway), an anthropology grad student, flies home from Morocco. As a strange way of making up for lost time, she snoops around in Henry’s journal and listens to his favorite music and visits his old haunts. She discovers his favorite musician is Brit folkster James Forester (real-life musician Johnny Flynn), who happens to be playing gigs in New York. She approaches him after a show, tells him about Henry, and things get weird from there. James begins visiting Henry in the hospital and playing him songs (remember, comatose). He goes on dates with Franny, has dinner with she and her mom (Mary Steenburgen) and, as I mentioned earlier, clinks glasses of Prosecco with Henry’s family over his unconscious body.
The most compelling thing about the movie is the question of how Henry is going to react when he discovers his sister has been dating his idol while he was out in coma-land. I mean, that’s got to be the craziest thing to wake up to, right? Maybe he wouldn’t believe it and fall into denial, or maybe he’d be overjoyed to see James, or hate him because he had sex with his sister. Wait a second…what if he could hear them the whole time?! Alas, Barker-Froyland isn’t interested in any of this, not in the slightest. When Henry finally wakes up, he’s immediately wiped from the movie and we never see or hear from him again. Talk about a tease.
The movie showcases a bunch of musical performances, with Flynn performing a handful of songs and NPR favorites Sharon Van Etten and Dan Deacon (among others) being shown doing their thing on stage in smallish venues (Deacon performing “The Crystal Cat” under crazy strobe lights is awesome). The musical interludes feel detached from the story, though, and it says something when they’re the most interesting scenes in a movie with Hathaway and Steenburgen in it. The actors do a good job across the board, but it feels like they could be doing this stuff in their sleep. Steenburgen’s a good actor, but it ain’t pretty when she has to sell lines like, “I always told him to look both ways! You just do your best, you know? You just…do your best!”
The focus here is the romance between Franny and James, but it’s a really, really unremarkable one. They do all the things you’d expect them to do in a music-centric movie set in New York City: they play songs sitting on the East River until early morning, share headphones, mope about their privileged white lives. Some of their conversations are so mundane and cutesy it’s hard to swallow. They reminded me of those couples who always end up talking to each other in a corner at house parties because they’re super into each other, but no one else finds them interesting or wants to talk to them. This is a movie about that couple.
As a fan of many of the musicians highlighted in Song One, I can say that it’s at the very least a pretty good exhibition of their talents, especially Flynn (the songs were written by Jenny Lewis and Johnathan Rice, but he performs them as well as he would his own). The film looks slick, too, though it doesn’t really capture the NYC atmosphere, (always a missed opportunity when that happens). With more nerve or edginess or ambition, Song One could have been an impressive, star-studded debut, but sadly it ends up being little more than an adequate movie without a mission.