Song to Song

Song to Song (2017)

Gorgeous cinematography is really all Terrence Malick’s tedious film has to offer us…

Song to Song attempts to be many different films at once: a lyrical love story, a drama about the price of fame, and a look at the music scene. Yet via the Terrence Malick treatment, we never learn anything of depth about these stories and subjects, his film is a muddled, hollow affair whose undeniably beautiful style can’t disguise its lack of substance.

It’s a shame when the film opens in such a promising way, cameras throwing us into the chaos of a mosh pit before giving us an enticing backstage look at the industry this is about, the energy of these scenes immediately palpable and welcoming. But this excitement soon dissipates as writer-director Malick sets his sights on other things, mainly a dreary, repetitive story about the relationship between Faye (Rooney Mara) and BV (Ryan Gosling), two musicians who find a sudden third wheel added to their lives when a manic producer (Michael Fassbender) pulls BV into a dubious record deal. Except this producer’s interest in the couple seems to go beyond merely musical, his sights particularly set on Faye, while at the same time he’s drawn to a local waitress (Natalie Portman). A tragedy seems on the horizon, it’s just too bad we don’t care when it actually does happen.

This lack of interest doesn’t stem from the narrative per se, which in itself is an intriguing tale about a love triangle and a deal with the devil. Instead Song to Song fails to captivate us because of the methods Malick uses, his confusing non-linear plot just one of the reasons the genuinely painful moments don’t resonate with us. His usual stunning, daydream-like cinematography and direction features the main characters dancing around each other in various scenarios, Malick aiming for sensual allure but unfortunately creating the most drawn out perfume advert you’ve ever had the misfortune of watching. Bereft of true characterisation, there is nothing here to really engage us, the near constant, gnawing voiceover adding no insight into their thoughts and instead distracts from instances that do exhibit real depth and emotion. It is an artificial veneer that keeps you at arm’s length rather than enticing you into the story, Malick more concerned with filming the perfect sunset than letting us connect with whatever is happening onscreen. Look but don’t touch.

Even when the plot does become interesting, Malick’s technique of jump cutting between shots becomes jarring and confusing, scenes are over within seconds rather than being allowed to expand organically. This often makes the performances seem wasted, such as in a poignant scene between Faye and her father where she opens up to him about their own relationship. Yet even as Rooney Mara builds herself to true anguish, Malick all too quickly jumps to some other moment, denying us the opportunity to learn the harrowing truth behind Faye’s tears. At least Holly Hunter (given a woefully brief role) is able to create a lasting impact in a later heartbreaking scene – possibly the only time Song to Song actually exhibits any of the realistic feelings you would hope would be on display in a drama and love story such as this.

The music industry backdrop seems of little interest to Malick as well, so much so that you wonder why this setting was chosen at all. Fleeting glimpses of musical performances, like the aforementioned opening, sees the energy of the film briefly returning, before it quickly disappears to make way for more lingering looks between BV, Faye and other characters. Cameos from music industry icons are just as infrequently featured, yet actually more captivating than the central narrative itself. The likes of Iggy Pop, John Lydon and Red Hot Chili Peppers light up the film whenever they appear, imparting words of wisdom and also bringing a much-needed touch of reality. Patti Smith’s appearance in particular draws you in, so much so that you wish the whole film just followed her.

Alongside these short-lived moments of awe at the music scene, there is another side that Malick tries to explore in a vain attempt to offer some sort of comment on the very industry it features. While Fassbender’s producer is undeniably charming (in only a way that Fassbender can achieve), he is also horribly manipulative, slithering around and using people to get what he wants, mainly women. It’s a viewpoint that ultimately costs him later in the film – one of the other few instances that make Song to Song almost worth watching. While this could have potentially offered the sort of power that is missing elsewhere, Malick unfortunately negates any such idea by celebrating this character’s wicked ways as much as demonising him, the camera lingering on every bit of female flesh it can find, even as it tries to make a point about how bad this is. It’s a hypocritical stance, and one which makes this even harder to stick with.

The brief extras on this DVD release feature interviews with the film’s producers who talk about Malick’s shooting style, as well as a discussion with an engaging Michael Fassbender and Natalie Portman, both actors offering short but concise insights into their characters that really make you want to try and appreciate the film itself. It’s just unfortunate that we see so little of these ideas in the finished product. At the other end of the spectrum is the usual trailer inclusion and another extra entitled ‘Featurette: The Music’, a short that is barely one minute long and offers us absolutely no information on the songs or performances featured, or any interviews with the musical icons shown throughout (bar a quick word with Lykke Li).

That drab disc pretty much sums up what the film is itself: a waste of time and a massively missed opportunity. While there are moments of beauty to be found throughout Song to Song, there are plenty of flaws to go with them. Unconventional storytelling aside though, what really galls is how little feeling, thought or emotion there is. Malick might have been trying to achieve the sort of film that wants you to drift along with it – a film in which you’re able to float by the side of its main characters and let its images wash over you. Yet without anything of depth, this is vapid, distancing stuff, the excellent cast unable to save this from its apparent air of smugness.

Mari Jones

Updated: Sep 25, 2017

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