You’re watching a movie called Song to Song. It’s about beautiful people in a beautiful city.
In this case, the city is Austin, Texas. The people are all involved in the Austin music scene and they’re played by actors like Ryan Gosling, Rooney Mara, Natalie Portman, Michael Fassbender, and Cate Blanchett. A good deal of Song to Song was filmed at the Austin City Limits festival and several real-life musicians appear as themselves, though only Patti Smith is on screen long enough to make much of an impression. To be honest, both the music and Austin are almost incidental to the film. Though the movie was sold as an Austin film and it premiered at SXSW, it could have just as easily taken place in Ft. Worth.
The film is made up of short, deliberately obscure shots. The camera never stops moving, floating over images of sunsets, sunrises, and oddly empty streets. Because the film was shot with a wide-angle lens, you’re never not aware of the expanse around the characters. At times, all of those beautiful film stars run the risk of become specks on the landscape, as if the film itself is taunting the characters for thinking that they are more important than nature.
Who are the characters? It’s not always easy to say. There are plenty of voice overs but it’s rare that anyone directly states what they’re thinking or who they are. When the characters speak to each other, they mumble. The dialogue is a mix of the banal and the portentous, a sure sign of a film that was largely shot without a script. Eventually, you turn on the captioning so that you can at least understand what everyone’s muttering.
Michael Fassbender plays Cook. Cook appears to be a music producer but he could just as easily be a businessman who enjoys hanging out with and manipulating aspiring stars. People seem to know him but nobody seems to be particularly impressed by him. Cook spends a lot of time standing in front of a pool. Is it his pool? Is it his house? It’s hard to say. Cook is obsessed with control or maybe he isn’t. Halfway through the film, Fassbender appears to turn into his character from Shame.
Ryan Gosling is BV. BV appears to be a lyricist, though it’s never made clear what type of songs that he writes. At one point, you think someone said that he had written a country song but you may have misheard. BV appears to have an estranged relationship with his dying father. BV may be a romantic or he may not. He seems to fall in love easily but he spends just as much time staring at the sky soulfully and suggesting that he has a hard time with commitment. BV appears to be Cook’s best friend but sometimes, he isn’t. There’s a random scene where BV accuses Cook of cheating him. It’s never brought up again.
Rooney Mara is Faye. Faye contributes most of the voice overs and yet, oddly, you’re never sure who exactly she is. She appears to be BV’s girlfriend and sometimes, she appears to be Cook’s girlfriend. Sometimes, she’s in love and then, just as abruptly, she’s not. She may be a singer or she may be a songwriter. At one point, she appears to be interviewing Patty Smith so maybe she’s a music journalist. The film is centered around her but it never makes clear who she is.
Natalie Portman is Rhonda. Rhonda was a teacher but now she’s a waitress. She might be religious or she might not. She might be married to Cook or she might not. Her mother (Holly Hunter) might be dying or she might not.
And there are other beautful people as well. Cate Blanchett plays a character named Amanda. Amanda has a relationship with one of the characters and then vanishes after four scenes. There’s an intriguing sadness to Blanchett’s performance. Since the first cut of Song to Song was 8 hours long, you can assume her backstory was left on the cutting room floor. (And yet strangely, it works that we never know much about who Amanda is.) Lykke Li shows up, presumably playing herself but maybe not. Berenice Marlohe and Val Kilmer also have small roles, wandering in and out of the character’s lives.
There’s a lot of wandering in this movie. The characters wander through their life, stopping only to kiss each other, caress each other, and occasionally stare soulfully into the distance. The camera seems to wander from scene to scene, stopping to occasionally focus on random details. Even the film’s timeline seems to wander, as you find yourself looking at Rooney Mara’s forever changing hair and using it as a roadmap in your attempt to understand the film’s story.
“I went through a period when I thought sex had to be violent,” Rooney Mara’s voice over breathlessly explains, “We thought we could just roll and tumble, live from song to song, kiss to kiss.”
As you watch Song to Song, you find yourself both intrigued and annoyed. This is a Terrence Malick film, after all. You love movies so, of course, you love Malick. Even if his recent films have been flawed and self-indulgent, he is a true original. You want to support him because he’s an artist but, as you watch Song to Song, the emphasis really does seem to be on self-indulgence. The images are beautiful but the characters are so empty and the voice overs are so incredibly pretentious. Should you be mad or should you be thankful that, in this time of cinematic blandness, there’s a director still willing to follow his own vision?
At times, Song to Song is brilliant. There are images in Song to Song that are as beautiful as any that Malick has ever captured. Sometimes, both the images and the characters are almost too beautiful. The music business is tough and dirty but all of the images in Song to Song are clean and vibrant.
At times, Song to Song is incredibly annoying. It’s hard not to suspect that the film would have worked better if Natalie Portman and Rooney Mara had switched roles. Mara can be an outstanding actress with the right director (just check out her performance in Carol) but, in Song to Song, her natural blandness makes it difficult to take her seriously as whoever she’s supposed to be. Portman has much less screen time and yet creates an unforgettable character. Mara is in 75% of the film and yet never seems like an active participant.
At times, the film is annoyingly brilliant. Malick’s self-indulgence can drive you mad while still leaving you impressed by his commitment to his vision.
And then, other times, the film is brilliantly annoying. Many directors have mixed overly pretty images with pretentious voice overs but few do so with the panache of Terrence Malick.
Even fans of Terrence Malick, of which I certainly am one, will probably find Song to Song to be his weakest film. Even compared to films like To The Wonder and Knight of Cups, Song to Song is a slow movie and there are moments that come dangerously close to self-parody. Unlike Tree of Life, where everything eventually came together in enigmatic poignance, Song to Song often feels like less than the sum of its parts. And yet, I can’t totally dismiss anything made by Terrence Malick. Song to Song may be empty but it’s oh so pretty.