Song to SongReviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 03/24/17 04:36:05
Terrence Malick is a filmmaker who has provided me with some of the most stunning and transporting moments that I have ever experienced in a movie theater, both as a critic and as an ordinary audience member. “Badlands” (1973), loosely inspired by the 1958 killing spree of Charles Starkweather, remains one of the most powerful and unforgettable debuts from any director and his 1978 followup “Days of Heaven” found him taking a standard narrative of love, jealousy and betrayal and transforming it into a stunning, one-of-a-kind example of pure visual poetry. After taking a 20-year sabbatical from the world of film that helped to solidify his legend, he returned with his cinematic genius undiminished with a sprawling adaptation of James Jones’ World War II novel “The Thin Red Line” (1998) and “The New World” (2005), his myth-deflating take on the story of Pocahontas and her relationship with the newcomers who settled her lands and helped to destroy her people while making her in a historical symbol in the process before culminating with “The Tree of Life” (2011), an astonishing and deeply personal work in which he combined elements taken from his own life growing up in Texas in the 1950s, themes that had been exploring throughout his entire career (ranging from parent-child conflicts to man’s continued search for grace and deliverance in a world where such things seem to have passed us by) and moments of pure audacity (such as taking a break in the early going to literally travel back to the beginning of time to bear witness to the creation of the universe up to the period when dinosaurs roamed the land) into a work that is not only Malick’s masterpiece to date but one of the finest films to emerge in this new century.Even though they have not found a lot of favor among critics or audiences, I have even been impressed with the way in which he has radically shifted his approach to filmmaking—telling stories set primarily in the present day with an approach that eschews the few rules of narrative storytelling he was still obeying for a new freeform aesthetic that feels more like a mosaic in its structure that the expansive canvases of before—and reinvented himself as an experimental filmmaker with the contentious, if ultimately rewarding, works as “To the Wonder” (2013) and “Knight of Cups” (2016). Of course, there is a danger in being an experimental filmmaker, especially one who is practically reinventing the very possibilities of how one can convey stories and emotions in purely cinematic terms and that is that anyone walking that particular artistic tightrope runs the risk of taking a big fall if they step wrong for an instant, a prospect that can be even messier for those like him who prefer working without a net. Unfortunately—and you have no idea how much it pains me to say this—with his latest work, “Song to Song,” he steps wrong practically from the get-go and lands with a splat that is at times painful to witness. Yes, he is still continuing to experiment with form but this is the kind of experiment that ends with the laboratory reduced to ruin and people wandering around dazedly wondering what could have possibly gone wrong.
Set within the Austin music scene, the film focuses on the romantic triangle that develops between three players at different levels of the industry and the additional people that they become involved with once their threesome inevitably disintegrates in a cloud of jealousy and betrayal. At the top of the ladder is Cook (Michael Fassbender), a powerful music producer who uses his wealth, fame and power to satisfy all of his indulgent cravings, no matter who gets hurt along the way. Down at the bottom is Faye (Rooney Mara), who is an ambitious singer-songwriter who works a number of odd jobs (including dog walker and house sitter) while always keeping an eye out for the right contact that will hopefully lead to her big break. Right in the middle is BV (Ryan Gosling) a rising singer/songwriter that Cook wants to take to the top and who Faye wants to attach herself to in order to help herself out. Faye and BV meet at one of Cook’s parties before long, the three of them gambol and goof around, even jetting off to Mexico for a party weekend.
It seems like paradise but, inevitably, there is one slight hitch. Before meeting BV, Faye was in a relationship with Cook that has continued on even after she and BV became a couple. This leads to the dissolution of the various personal and professional relationships between the three and they all go spinning into new relationships. Cook takes up with Rhonda (Natalie Portman), a sweet and innocent former schoolteacher (kindergarten, naturally) who is working as a waitress to support her and her long-suffering mother (Holly Hunter) until she is swept off her feet into a seemingly glamorous but ultimately corrupt life of sex, drugs and empty materialism. For his part, BV crosses paths with the enigmatic Amanda (Cate Blanchett), an older Brit who is nursing her own broken heart—they seem to be ideal for each other until BV’s mother (Linda Edmond), with whom he has a close relationship, makes no attempt to disguise her mistrust of this new woman in her son’s life. Finally, Faye meets French artist Zoey (Berenice Marlohe) and they begin a relationship even though Zoey has nothing to do with the music industry and cannot possibly help Faye in that regard. However, hovering over all of these relationships is the possibility that Faye and BV might eventually find their way to getting back together again.
All of this may sound reasonably straightforward in the recounting here—it actually contains more of a tangible storyline than either “To the Wonder” or “Knight of Cups”—but most people will only be able to piece together most of these details together only after the film is over, most likely after digesting a sheaf of other articles attempting to penetrate its meaning. As has been his wont in recent years, Malick has been paring away nearly all recognizable conventions of cinematic narrative by doling out his story by utilizing tiny little bits and pieces of footage chosen almost seemingly at random, no matter how oddly the shots may match up (or may not, as is often the case), and sort of tied together with long streams of narration from the various characters that represents approximately 75% of all the dialogue that is heard. In the cases of “To the Wonder” and “Knight of Cups,” this particular approach worked reasonably well because those films were less interested in telling a story than in evoking certain moods and emotions in viewers through the unusual and at time asynchronous audio and visual material. This time around, however, Malick seems more interested in actually telling a borderline conventional story—albeit on his own terms and in the most unconventional of ways—than he has since “The Thin Red Line” but doesn’t seem to realize that the style he is now employing makes such a thing virtually impossible. Instead, he keeps us at arms length from the material throughout and as a result, there is no way for viewers to get involved with the story on any level. Viewers may find themselves being further alienated by the mix-and-match approach that Malick, along with his team of editors, has applied to the mountain of footage that he shot, an approach that leads to bizarre moments where a single conversation between two characters seems to take place in a number of wildly different locations and time periods. (Don’t even get me started on the wide variety of hairstyles that Mara ends up sporting at various points throughout the film.) If the rest of the film was working, these hiccups in continuity could have been forgiven or at least overlooked but since it doesn’t, all they do is add yet another layer of utter bewilderment to a film that is not exactly lacking in that regard.
Another problem with the film is that, with a couple of brief exceptions, there is a startling lack of authenticity to the material that Malick is presenting that ends up working against it as a whole. Say what you will about Malick’s recent films, they told stories and featured characters that had enough of a sense of believability to them that helped to keep them grounded in something resembling reality when the flightier aspects threatened to send them floating into the ether. By comparison, you never feel that he ever had the same kind of connection with the material here and it suffers considerably as a result. This is a film that takes place among the Austin music industry and it does feature plenty of musical footage shot seemingly on the fly during the SXSW festival, though only in the briefest of snippets. Beyond that, however, the characters and the milieu are so sketchily executed that you can hardly believe that anyone on the screen, or even Malick for that matter, has ever so much as turned on a radio, let alone make or produce music for a living. His big insight about Cook, for example, is that he is a character that is either Satan himself or somewhere in that ballpark—this may be an opinion that many musicians might feel about powerful record producers but on the profundity scale, it lags far behind David Letterman’s references to “record industry pinheads.” Oddly, Malick seems just as disinterested in the actual artists as well. For example, we keep hearing about Faye being a singer and songwriter but at no time do we actually see her writing or singing anything—at a couple of fleeting moments, we see her on a stage with what I guess is her band (not that they are ever named or explained) but she is too busy standing enigmatically with her guitar to actually deign to play it. One could argue, I suppose, that this could be Malick’s commentary on the insta-celebrity culture of today in which claiming to be an artist is considered to be roughly the same thing as actually practicing and perfecting one’s chosen craft but he seems just as disinterested in BV, who is supposed to be a talented and serious artist. Just to further accentuate just how shallow Malick’s conception of the music world truly is, he includes a number of cameos from such real-life rockers as Patti Smith, John Lydon, Iggy Pop, Lykke Ki and a couple of Red Hot Chili Peppers and even though they only have a few moments on screen, they bring with them an authenticity that cannot be denied and which makes everything else seem hollow by comparison.
Because of his reputation as a filmmaker, Malick has always been able to attract top-caliber actors to his projects, even though they now presumably know going in that there is a chance that they won’t actually make the final cut if Malick’s muse decides to go in a different direction during the editing process. In turn, he has provided actors like Martin Sheen, Sissy Spacek and Brad Pitt with roles that allowed them to fully show what they were capable of and has given unknowns like Linda Manz, Q’Orianka Kilcher and Jessica Chastain opportunities to show what they were capable of doing. This time around, he has not been able to create a similar connection with his lead actors and they wind up floating through the proceedings looking silly and unmoored. Never the most charismatic or demonstrative of actresses even on her best days, Rooney Mara is wildly unconvincing as Faye—at no point do you ever get the sense of the charismatic pull that she supposedly has that allows her to attract the attentions of the likes of Cook, BV or Zoey. (You keep hoping that maybe Malick will decide to pull a Leos Carax and replace Mara with Rihanna.) For his part, Fassbender seems to have given up trying to figure out what his character is supposed to be and ends up simply offering a repeat of his role in “Shame” instead. Gosling tries the hardest but just never clicks with the material and you can almost see him thinking “Man, if only I could land a role in a genuine musical someday, I could show them all. . . “
What is really frustrating about “Song to Song” is that it is not a complete wash, the kind of failure that is so total and absolute that it can easily be written off as some kind of weird, deck-clearing aberration. No, there are some elements here that work wonderfully enough to make you wonder how the same man responsible for them could have possibly had a hand in the other nonsense on display. While the three leads seem adrift through out, both Natalie Portman and Cate Blanchett are able to carve out real and identifiable characters for themselves despite their limited screen time and the equally limited material that they are working with—of course, having both worked with Malick before on “Knight of Cups,” they presumably had a better idea of how to make his idiosyncratic style work for them. Marking his fifth collaboration with Malick, cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki has come up with one stunningly gorgeous image after another with the live concert footage, what little there is of it, presented in such a striking and unique manner that you’ll wish that someone would hire him to shoot a proper concert movie as soon as possible. As I said earlier, the brief appearances by the real rock performers that turn up are quite effective—Patti Smith, who seems to be serving as Faye’s muse, actually does more actual on-camera talking than most of the major characters—and there is a hilarious unbilled appearance by Val Kilmer as a deranged rocker who starts flinging “uranium” on the crowd before being dragged away that gives the film the kind of edgy jolt that it so desperately needs throughout. There is another hilarious moment in which a putatively serious-minded scene is weirdly undone by the decision to fill the background with a family tooling around on Segways—I am convinced that, in a rare moment of cheeky humor, Malick included these people after having a producer complain about his constantly jumping editorial design in the past and insist that this film include some proper segues.If there is a silver lining to “Song to Song,” it is the simple fact that even though it is ultimately a failure as a film, it is indeed a Terrence Malick through and through that he has made without any hint of compromise. If it is indeed a failed experiment, then it is one done completely on his terms. Who knows, it may turn out to be one of those films that plays a little better on a second viewing when you can put the immediate flaws to the side and see if anything else of value comes to focus. (This is the first Malick film since “The Thin Red Line” that I was not able to see at least for a second time before writing the review.) Heck, there may even be a better version of this particular film carved out of all the footage that is sitting on an Avid machine somewhere. Moreover, my fascination with him has not dimmed a bit—I still consider him to be one of the great living masters of cinema and will no doubt look upon his future films as major events. However, my love and respect for the man and his work cannot take away from the inescapable fact that “Song to Song,” despite its ambitions and exquisite formal beauty, is ultimately as frustrating and irritating as a favorite record from a favorite musical act that has a massive scratch running straight through it, making it all but impossible to simply sit through, let alone enjoy.
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