“Song One” is an earnest but underwhelming romantic drama set in the live music scene of Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Such a venue should’ve yielded better results since the emphasis is on modern folk, a kind of music that is never in fashion yet never goes out of date.
Alas, the brief snatches of music, performed in the very clubs that brought the area to musical prominence, give you too little of the local flavor and color needed to appreciate the scene. And the drama from debuting writer-director Kate Barker-Froyland isn’t substantial enough to make up the difference.
Indeed it’s hard to imagine this movie having made the cut for 2014 Sundance or getting theatrical distribution in 2015 without the presence of no less than two Oscar-winning actresses atop the playbill — Anne Hathaway and Mary Steenburgen.
Hathaway plays Franny, an anthropologist working on her Ph.D. among nomadic tribes in Morocco when summoned home by her mom, Karen (Steenburgen), to deal with the aftermath of brother Henry (Ben Rosenfield) getting hit by a car.
Henry, an aspiring musician, lies in a coma in the hospital, leaving the two women in his life with plenty of guilt to go with their grief. Karen is haunted by her lack of involvement in Henry’s life due to a book she is working day and night to finish. Franny feels remorse for berating her brother for dropping out of college to pursue a music career. They hadn’t spoken since.
Discovering Henry’s journal about his gigs, writings and daily routine, she uses this as an anthropological tour guide to his life,visiting his musical haunts and coffee shops. She even records traffic noises and buys favorite food to bring to the hospital in hopes sounds and smells will coax him from deep sleep.
Finding a concert ticket to her brother’s favorite singer-songwriter James Forester (British actor-musician Johnny Flynn), she goes to the show and makes his acquaintance afterwards. A tentative relationship ensues that eventually becomes sexual.
But the movie fails to connect the dots among the music, characters and fragile emotions everyone feels. The story often feels unmoored from its environment.
James too has his struggles albeit with a decent-selling album from five years before. He hasn’t written anything since though, mostly coasting on those songs and an occasional gig as a wedding singer.
The original music by Jenny Lewis and Johnathan Rice is pleasant but nothing more. Unlike John Carney’s “Once” (2006), where the songs by leads Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová had genuine ear-catching punch, the music in “Song One” sounds generic. Wisely the film’s young writer-director serves it up in the smallest possible doses.
So rather than the film occurring within a musical milieu, the music serves only as a backdrop to the drama. And the drama wanders aimlessly without much definition to its characters or resolution to their individual dilemmas.
The acting is strong enough by Hathaway and Steenburgen (who is barely needed for the storyline) but Flynn doesn’t measure up to his more famous American co-stars. His presence is lightly felt on screen and lacks the charisma one would expect from a supposedly experienced on-stage performer.
(Young girls ask for his autograph but you can’t imagine how they even know him much less than by sight.)
Baker-Froyland does display gifts for keeping a story on track and using dialogue sparingly but wisely. She makes you warm up to her characters despite their wispiness and feel the pain of a family holding a life vigil in a hospital.
She also demonstrates an ability to get not only top performers but top producers in her corner. The film is produced by such heavyweights as Jonathan Demme, Marc Platt and Hathaway herself. Sometimes that’s a gift that means everything for a filmmaker, especially one looking for a follow-up project.
The film certainly will play well on cable late at night for young adults especially women. It does trade on a certain fantasy about being wooed and won by a soulful, popular singer who prefers a real woman, a Ph.D. candidate no less, to swoony girls.
Opens: January 23, 2015 (Cinedigm)
Production companies: Worldview Entertainment, Marc Platt Productions
Cast: Anne Hathaway, Johnny Flynn, Mary Steenburgen, Ben Rosenfield
Director-screenwriter: Kate Barker-Froyland
Producers: Jonathan Demme, Marc Platt, Anne Hathaway, Adam Shulman, Christopher Woodrow, Molly Conners
Executive producers: Maria Cestone, Sarah E. Johnson, Bill Johnson, Jim Seibel, Jared LeBoff
Director of photography: John Guleserian
Production designer: Jade Healy
Music: Jenny Lewis, Jonathan Rice
Costume designer: Emma Potter
Editor: Madeleine Gavin
PG-13 rating, 88 minutes.