The opener of this year’s SXSW Film Festival was one of the hardest ones to get tickets for. Some people waited in line for up to seven hours without success, but little did they know that they didn’t miss a thing; ‘Song to Song’ featuring Michael Fassbender, Rooney Mara, Ryan Gosling, Natalie Portman and Cate Blanchett (six people who share 19 Oscar nominations and three wins) is very promising on paper, but watching it ends up stealing 129 minutes from your life that you will never get back.
Faye (Mara), a musician we actually never see making music, is dating Cook (Fassbender)—a successful music mogul who likes to throw parties—to boost her career. Then she meets BV (Gosling), a struggling musician who is also her boyfriend’s protégé, and falls in love with him. Then, Cook starts dating a waitress named Rhonda (Portman) and marries her just two scenes later. Meanwhile, BV and Faye break up, and he starts going out with Amanda (Blanchett), but she leaves as quickly as she appears. Meanwhile, Faye gets into a lesbian affair with Zoey (Bond girl Bérénice Marlohe), but can’t get over BV.
The story is generic and the premise becomes more interesting than the plot. Filmed in 2012 at SXSW and other Austin-based festivals, the premiere of ‘Song to Song’ at said festival and location— after five years of editing—generated quite a buzz. It sounds like a fascinating project: the combination of an acclaimed director, acting luminaries, one of the most decorated cinematographers of our time, Emmanuel Lubezki (who adds another 8 Oscar nominations and 3 wins to the count),\ and filming that utilized Austin and its music scene as a backdrop. What could go wrong? Unfortunately more than you’d think.
At no point did you learn the names of the characters. The timeline is not linear, but doesn’t offer any clues about what happens when. The performers seem just as confused about their characters as the viewers. Malick never stopped writing the screenplay even after the cameras already started rolling, so the actors only got a few pages of text every day. They never had a chance to rehearse or to develop the characters, making every role merely a cliché without any depth. The cryptic voice-over supposedly gives us insight into the people, but there was nothing enlightening revealed—just random notes à la “I went through a period where sex had to be violent.” Good to know?
Then there are the cameos. Plenty stars of film and music pop in for a few scenes: Val Kilmer, Patty Smith, Iggy Pop, The Black Lips and others. Christian Bale also filmed some scenes, but they were cut from the movie. This is just some name-dropping; the musicians just play themselves and don’t add anything to the story. I also have no idea what was going on with Kilmer, who plays an old rocker who is prone to self-destruction. All in all the cast stumbles through this movie like there was no director at all. Maybe Malick was too busy rewriting his own screenplay.
‘Song to Song’ is a pretentious, confusing, and badly written movie that looks like Malick gave free reign to the actors and the editors (there’s a total of eight, with only three of them credited). It never makes any sense. To call the editing random would be an understatement and it feels like an overlong music video. I wanted to like it, but I can hardly find a reason.
Among the few things that make this movie merely watchable is Emmanuel Lubezki’s cinematography. His virtuous wide-angle shots give the movie a fresh and modern look but ultimately cannot save this experiment of a film. Another pro is the set design. Location scout Dustin Daniels is the other true star of the film, sprinkling the movie with robust music festivals, raving after-hour parties, fancy cocktail receptions, and some of Austin’s fanciest properties.
Unless you’re a die-hard-fan of Malick’s recent works, don’t watch this movie. If for some reason you are a fan, and you’d like to see pretty people do cute relationship things, like walking hand-in-hand and talk about random stuff, go for it.
Don’t say I didn’t warn you!
P.S. Stay in your seats for the credits, because James Franco added a funny post-credit-scene — don’t miss it.
Song to Song (2017); written & directed by Terrence Malick, with Michael Fassbender, Rooney Mara, Ryan Gosling, Natalie Portman, Cate Blanchett, Bérénice Marlohe; cinematography by Emmanuel Lubezki; 129 min; R-rated
My Rating: 2/5