Review: Song to Song

If timing is everything then it will be interesting to see how Terrence Malick’s 2017 feature fares at the box office in Japan during a pandemic. It has less to do with logistical issues — I predict the movie will be streaming before long — and more to do with the subject matter and the movie’s attendant air of laconic privilege. Reportedly the last in a trilogy of movies that takes place in our modern world (a theory that is somewhat proven by the fact that Malick’s latest film is set in the past, like almost all of his most famous titles) Song to Song nevertheless feels uncomfortably dated if only because of its ill-timed release in Japan. It is set in the world of commercial popular music and many scenes were shot backstage at the Austin City Limits Festival. Seeing hordes of people rocking to the likes of Iggy Pop and the Red Hot Chili Peppers feels sadly anachronistic, like, “those days are gone for good.” 

But even if you approach the film as happening in a distant past, its whole mood seems strikingly out of touch with conventional human experience. Revolving around a romantic triangle consisting of an up-and-coming singer-songwriter, BV (Ryan Gosling), an arrogant, self-centered record producer, Cook (Michael Fassbender), and a young woman, Faye (Rooney Mara), of drifting purpose and appetites whose own musical ambitions seem to be stunted, the story always seems to be passing by its subjects as it meanders on to the next fuzzily conceived anecdote. The viewer is a passenger in a car zipping by — just as they start to understand what they’re looking at out the window it’s on to the next scene. 

Most of these scenes come across as elaborate, almost childish renderings of romantic foreplay. There are lots of instances of either BV or Cook rolling around on a bed with Faye in some very high-end properties (BV lives for a time in a high-rise, while Cook’s abode is a rambling modernistic mansion on the water) while whispering sweet nothings (“just tell me a complete lie”). Since Malick’s script doesn’t follow any kind of chronological order, we often see the end of a relationship before the beginning or the middle, and, because the movie is long, the impression is that Faye was Cook’s plaything before she took up with BV, whom Cook is grooming for stardom but, in the end, betrays by stealing his copyrights. However, such a precis is way too generous in terms of plot dynamics. The movie is not really interested in story protocols like motivation of character development. If anything, the three principal actors seem to be playing off images they cultivated in previous films, which makes the whole “indie music scene” setting all the more preposterous. When you have these A-class movie stars rubbing shoulders with genuine rock musicians like Patti Smith, Tegan & Sara, and Lykke Li, it breaks down your ability to suspend disbelief. Add to that the fact that, except for a few times when he sits listlessly at a piano pecking out a melody, we never see BV actually doing music, not in a studio or, for that matter, in a live setting; a decision that, given the tenor of the film, feels like nothing more than laziness. 

But as always, Malick, thanks mainly to his long-time cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, manages to offer up some moving tableaux that brings the director’s penchant for the godly grandeur of the natural world to bear on a decidedly artificial one. The rich-and-famous atmosphere created here may be overly familiar and, due to the music biz references, hackneyed, but it can also be breathtaking, especially when it’s used to highlight certain dramatic points that would otherwise feel tossed-off, such as Cook’s impulsive marriage to a diner waitress (Natalie Portman, looking like anything but) that eventually destroys her and her mother (Holly Hunter); Faye’s brief fling with a French woman (Berenice Marlohe); or BV’s sojourn home to meet up with his estranged, dying father. It’s sort of maddening that these episodes are shoehorned in for the sake of dramatic credibility, but they work if only because Malick understands the appeal of dramatic conventions. It’s just that his conceptions in this case are fundamentally corny. A cameo by Cate Blanchett as a rich woman who takes up with BV is totally superfluous and makes you wonder what Malick wanted out of the character. Obviously he has no trouble attracting expensive talent, but given the enormity of his own you only wish he could find better uses for others’.

Now playing in Tokyo at Shinjuku Cinema Qualite (03-3352-5645), Human Trust Cinema Shibuya (03-5468-5551).

Song to Song home page in Japanese

photo (c) 2017 Buckeye Pictures LLC

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