The problem in a film like this is the music. We travel along with a singer/songwriter as she is discovered, developed, and begins to have some success. To really enjoy the movie then, it seems to me, we need to think she is really, really good. But good to you might not be good to me. So … do you like Joni Mitchell, Madonna, Lady Gaga, Taylor Swift, Nikki Minaj, Ani DiFranco? (Feel free to add to the list.) Like them all? Just a few of them? Think one or more of them suck?
So what do you do, if you’re making the film? You have to hire someone to write the original songs, and they must appeal to somebody. Which audience do you choose?
Writer-director John Carney chose to stay with the kind of music in his wildly successful 2007 movie Once … which, I’m sorry to say, I didn’t really like. (I really hated the main song, “Falling Slowly,” an insipid little thing that quickly became an earworm for me, popping onto my mental playlist over and over, ineradicable. But what do I know? It won the Oscar.) So I was less than overwhelmed by the music here. And again, what do I know? I haven’t really loved much new music since Graceland.
But although I had to pretend to myself that I really, really liked the music I was hearing, the movie does have its charms. What won me over when I was wondering if I wanted to stick around was a magical scene close to the beginning. Keira Knightly (who is only an okay singer) reluctantly sings her new song at an open mike in the Village somewhere. She’s no good at all, clearly wishing she could be somewhere else, and the audience knows it. She sits down, depressed.
So … Mark Rufalo is a has-been A&R man who has just been fired from his own record label. He used to be a power in town, but he hasn’t found anybody any good for years. He wanders into the bar, shit-faced, and Keira begins again. We see the same scene, realize it is a re-play, and this time the instruments on the stage behind her gradually come alive, playing themselves. We are lured back into the song, and we can see how he hears the possibilities in this miserable little performance. He doesn’t over-engineer, he just enhances. It’s never going to be a great song (to my ears) but it is 1000% better. It’s great movie-making.
I liked it better and better as it went on. There’s good support from Hailee Steinfeld as his daughter and Catherine Keener as his ex-wife.
A couple things puzzled me, though. They decide to record Keira with a pick-up band, really on the cheap, at various places around the city. “Ambient sound,” they call it, and it’s not a bad idea, I guess. But … why the hell didn’t they spring for a cheap camera and make videos while they were at it? Hell, even a cell phone would have done. Now you’ve just lost the opportunity for a viral YouTube.
And second, they decide to release the album on a dollar-a-download site … and this is portrayed as something revolutionary. Don’t they know this is already old hat? That record labels are terrified of stuff like this? All I can figure is that, since the script was written in 2010, it might have looked amazing at the time. But it should have been changed.
Anyway, those are carps that didn’t really affect my enjoyment of the movie. I just wish the music had been more to my taste.