Broad Street 2 hours 9 minutes R
Terrence Malick continues his search for the meaning of life, in this case against the Austin music scene. But he succeeds in illuminating neither. The film was shot during the South by Southwest, Austin City Limits and the Fun Fun Fun Fests in Texas. The actors were able to mingle and do their work amongst the actual crowds who became extras because, according the Producer Sarah Green, the hardcore music fans were more interested in the rock stars than the actors. Patti Smith, the Black Lips, Iggy Pop, Florence and the Machine and the Red Hot Chili Peppers appear.
Writer/Director Malick and his longtime cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki once again crafted this film not from a script. They worked from from an outline or treatment with no word-by-word roadmap. This allowed the cast to improvise their scenes. The magic is supposed to happen in post when they get into the editing room. That’s when Malick and his team stitch the scenes together, add the voiceover tracks and the music.
Rooney Mara is Faye, a musician hoping to land a contract and a career. She hooks up, in all ways, with high powered, manipulative music producer Cook (Michael Fassbender). Fassbender is the most intense of the major characters. Malick instructed him to “attack” his scenes. His character is known for throwing sumptuous parties in his penthouse and controlling talent and women.
Faye encounters another aspiring musician BV (Ryan Gosling) and falls immediately for him. Mara looks like her face is locked in a rather vacant gaze for most of her many closeups on camera. Malick sees her as an actress like Audrey Hepburn with vulnerability and depth. She's supposed to be a musician, but always looks out of place holding a guitar. She and Patti Smith have a serious scene talking about the meaning of life. Faye does manage to look a bit happier when Gosling is romancing her, showing dimples and all. Likewise, Gosling also keeps a stoic look on his face most of the time. He seems very intent trying to figure out what he’s going to say next. His characterization feels a little bit like his La La Land persona. Very internal.
Along the way Fassbender takes up with Natalie Portman, a poor teacher who is just scraping by as a waitress. When BV and Faye stray, Cook goes after her. BV takes up with Cate Blanchett, a rich Austin socialite looking for good sex, companionship, and maybe love. But she’s old enough to be his mother and when she meets his Mom, Malick shows the women side by side so it’s uncomfortably noticeable. There were a few times the actors came up with insightful, sharp dialogue that thankfully were left in the final cut. One stand-out moment is when Linda Emond, as BV’s mother, strikes to the heart of his relationship with the older Cate Blanchett. If only Malick had been able to get more of that from his major characters.
These plot lines are all given the Malick treatment, meaning nothing is explicitly revealed. Everything is alluded to through beautiful, fleeting quick cuts. You can count on seeing visions of nature and water, the foundation of all life. It all begins to feel like Malick is simply directing from his playbook instead of exploring new territory. Even though there seemed to be a more discernible storyline here than in previous works like Tree of Life, this film just plods along at a languid pace. Faye, in narration, describes their relationships in musical terms. "We thought we could just roll and tumble, from, song to song, and kiss to kiss."
Austin is the live music capital of America. But Malick doesn’t do justice to the city’s vibrant music scene. Even thought the title of the film is Song to Song, you don’t hear many. There are some quick shots of music venues and some music legends like Patti Smith and Iggy Pop appear as themselves delivering an instant life lesson before disappearing. We see Rooney Mara pick up a guitar and look completely lost on stage. Ryan Gosling plunks a piano and strums a guitar, but the longest view of any performance is a bunch of guys kicking up a lot of dust in a mosh pit. We were glad to see Val Kilmer on stage looking happy, if not high, as a musician.
The sex scenes are mostly depressing and perfunctory. In one voiceover Faye talks about sex as a “gift,” but for most of the movie intimacy is expressed through countless close-ups of faces and bodies being touched. This action quickly became repetitive and boring. But Malick's camera loves Mara and Portman. They look incredibly gorgeous in this film. Even Portman as a blond.
And that is the disappointment of Song to Song. It is a film so hung up on its style and desire to ask the “Big Questions” about life and love, that it forgets to bring the audience along for the ride. At more than 2 hours it’s just a tedious trip. For Malick fans, it must’ve given them what they wanted. At the end of our screening there was a smattering of applause, but it was also met with a cascade of cat-calls. Terrence Mallick has a great eye for transforming the movie screen into a artist’s palette. What this lacks is the story to make it a more satisfying work of art.