In two different parts of the world, two estranged siblings go on with their lives separately. The brother is a passionate busker and would-be pro musician spending time singing his heart out in New York subways. The elder sister is in Africa, researching nomadic tribes in Morocco for her PhD. But one fateful night, a critical error in judgment will reunite them: Henry (Ben Rosenfeld from “Boardwalk Empire”) is in a coma after an accident and following an emergency call from his mother (Mary Steenburgen), Frannie (Anne Hathaway) drops everything to be by his side.
Consumed by the accident and haunted by her last unfortunate interaction with Henry-–chastising him for chasing his dreams, dropping out of college and leaving for another continent—Frannie is wracked with guilt. Obsessed with trying to find a sensual trigger that might get him out of his coma (smells and sounds), Frannie rifles through his personal things for clues about his life. In doing so, she discovers a ticket for a gig by James Forester (real life musician Johnny Flynn, frontman of Johnny Flynn & The Sussex Wit) a folk musician that Henry is obsessed with. Intrigued, Frannie attends one of his concerts and after an awkward post-gig meet cute, the grieving sister and the indie-rock musician’s lives become intertwined. And with just a few days left on his New York tour before he has to leave America and go back home, their time together will be precious and short.
The first feature by Kate Barker-Froyland (New Directors/New Films short filmmaker), “Song One” is well intentioned, well-shot and has its musical heart in the right place, but it often feels incredibly familiar, and the more contrived, credulity-straining moments don’t help. Frannie uncomfortably tells James that Henry is in a coma after his concert and then the indie-rocker visits the hospital. Frannie is touched by this gesture and the relationship begins. We’re to believe that while the folk singer’s first album brought him “fame, fortune and acclaim” he has time and the inclination to visit a fan in the hospital, hang out for days and play him songs at each visit?
Predictable elements also mar the already shaky storyline. When Frannie and James become romantically involved, not one single person in the audience is remotely surprised. And while Frannie is concerned and emotional, her strange behavior of reading through Henry’s diary feels a little forced and potentially sociopathic (the movie does eventually call her out on the matter, if ever so briefly). We’re also relieved that James finds Frannie cute and doesn’t see her as a stalker when she begins to pop up at every one of his gigs.
However, if you can live with or suspend your disbelief with these problems, although you probably shouldn’t totally let it off the hook, “Song One” might be your kind of tune. Intermittently charming, Hathaway and Flynn have restrained chemistry, but it’s not exactly alchemic (which is perhaps one of the film’s quieter deal breakers). A musician not well-known for his acting, Flynn is authentic with the guitar, while never quite remarkable as an actor. So a lot comes down to the music written by Johnathan Rice and Rilo Kiley’s Jenny Lewis. It would be refreshing to hear an indie music film for once not featuring plaintive, earnest folk songs, but that’s exactly what is delivered here. And while these folk ballads are are occasionally touching (the final song in particular is the film’s best), more often than not these tunes, again, sound awfully familiar. It’s perhaps telling that outside the film’s final scene—effectively tearjerky, for all its narrative manipulation—the most transcendent musical moment is a sequence where Hathaway and Flynn dance to Dan Deacon with wild, charged abandon.
Williamsburg-esque snobs worried about “Song One” encroaching on their precious territory like the evil of Starbucks gentrification, should relax. “Song One” is hardly “Brooklyn Music Scene: The Movie,” and while it features bands at notable touchstone spots like Pete’s Candy Store and the Bowery Ballroom, these sequences are tasteful, respectful and will give even the most skeptical and sensitive music obsessive nothing to wince at.
For a first feature (which she also wrote), Barker-Froyland has a good eye, but her ear for tone is not yet quite pitch perfect. But when “Song One” does find a groove, no longer has to deal with plot contrivances and can just let Hathaway and Flynn interact, it can be quite convincing and endearing. Craft-wise you certainly could do much worse for your feature-length writer/directorial debut, and “Song One” generally has no traces of the amateurishness that plagued early lo-fi mumblecore. But this is perhaps faint praise. It’s about awakenings, both physical and emotional, and while a coma is a neat metaphor for the closed-down Frannie, as she reconnects with her family and her heart once more, and it’s not actually as obviously on-the-nose as it sounds, Barker-Froyland could have spent a little more time finessing the script to rid it of the sense of cliche.
More forgiving, and perhaps more romantic, audiences may be willing to put their heads aside for 90 minutes and give their hearts to “Song One.” And it does possess commercial potential for biggish, crowd-pleasing results. However those with an attuned ear for the hokey and contrived may not be able to excuse some of the false notes. [C+]