In two different parts of the world, two estranged siblings conduct their lives separately. The brother is a passionate busker and would-be pro musician singing his heart out in New York subways, and the sister is researching nomadic tribes in Morocco for her PhD. But a critical error in judgment one night reunites them: Henry (Ben Rosenfeld from “Boardwalk Empire”) is in a coma after an accident, and following an emergency call from their 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 dropping out of college and then flouncing off to another continent— Frannie is wracked with guilt. Obsessed with trying to find a trigger that might get him out of his coma (smells and sounds), Frannie rifles through his belongings for clues about his life. 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 admires. 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, 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 tells James that Henry is in a coma after his concert and then the singer visits the hospital. Frannie is touched by this gesture and the relationship begins. We’re supposed 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 viewer could be remotely surprised. While Frannie is concerned about her brother, when she rifles through Henry’s diary, it feels forced and potentially sociopathic (the movie briefly call her out on the matter). No one bats an eye when James finds Frannie cute, and doesn’t see her as a stalker when she begins to pop up at every gig.
However, if you can suspend your disbelief, “Song One” might be your kind of tune. Intermittently charming, Hathaway and Flynn have restrained, not exactly alchemic chemistry (which is perhaps one of the film’s quieter deal breakers). A musician not known for his acting, Flynn is authentic onstage with a guitar but not so much 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 see an indie music film for once not featuring plaintive, earnest acoustic songs, yet that’s exactly what is delivered here. And while these ballads are occasionally touching (the final song in particular is the film’s best), more often than not these tunes sound awfully familiar. It’s 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.
Indie culture partisans worried about “Song One” encroaching on their precious territory should relax. “Song One” is hardly “Brooklyn Music Scene: The Movie,” and while it features bands at notable 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 developed. But when “Song One” does find a groove and doesn’t have to deal with plot contrivances and lets Hathaway and Flynn interact, it can be quite convincing and endearing. One could certainly 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 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, and it’s as obviously on-the-nose as it sounds, Barker-Froyland could have spent a little more time finessing the script.
More forgiving, 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+]
This is a reprint of our review from the 2014 Sundance Film Festival.