Song to Song (2017)

Rooney Mara (The Discovery) and Ryan Gosling (La La Land) star as Faye and BV, a couple of struggling songwriters looking to make their way into the music industry within Austin, Texas. Shortly after meeting, they become a romantic couple as well, but their relationship shows some strain when successful music producer named Cook (Fassbender, X-Men: Apocalypse) continues to expect a bit of quid pro quo for his time, and Faye does want to get ahead. Faye gets caught up in Cook’s talk of fulfilling her dreams, but it isn’t long before she realizes she’s but one of a string of women who come into and out of his life.  Faye finds new connections herself with another woman, as does BV, but the more avenues traversed, the more lost they all seem in the pursuit of happiness.  While their beds are never empty, their lives are.

Written and directed by Terrence Malick, Song to Song further continues his crafting of aesthetically interesting but narratively vacuous films that serve to please only himself and those faithful who feel he can do no wrong as a filmmaker. The style is very much in the vein of his recent efforts like To the Wonder and Knight of Cups, and if you liked those films, I suppose you’ll find the same things to enjoy about this effort, and if you did not, you can skip Song to Song entirely.

Malick employs a mostly improvised style, shooting all day and evening following his impressive cast of actors around the city, looking for interesting locales, and trying to capture beauty and performances as they happen. Malick’s first cut of the film ended up being a whopping eight hours, momentarily contemplating a release as a miniseries before finally going the distance to get the film down to just under 2.5 hours in run time.  Voice overs from the various characters attempt to do what the muddled on-screen conversations fail to do, and that’s to give some semblance of meaning to the characters as they traverse the odd odyssey of their lives at this point.

Rockers like Patti Smith, Flea from the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Florence Welch, Iggy Pop, and Del Shannon appear to give the Austin music scene some authenticity, including a few moments of Val Kilmer looking like he’s playing older version of Jim Morrison from The Doors.

What the rest consists of is a lot of cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki’s (The Revenant) sweeping, wide-angle camerawork, featuring the capturing of various picturesque locales around Malick’s home town of Austin, as well as interesting things that occurred during their lengthy shooting days.  Opulent homes with lots of giant windows are chosen, with the actors having conversations unnaturally in front of these windows because Lubezki prefers to shoot in natural light.

The problem here is not that Song to Song is without talent, as everyone involved has proven to be at the top of their respective fields in various other movies.  The problem here is that shooting endlessly actors doing whatever they want for days on end, with no ADR (other than navel-gazing bits of narration) so that we can clearly hear what the actors are saying in the few moments of dialogue, and then winnowing the countless hours of footage to just the tiny bits that Malick finds interesting to view makes for a choppy, incoherent narrative, and though visually arresting at times, the story, characters, and very lengthy run time make for one of the more monotonous experiences you’ll have at the cinema.

I’m all for unconventional film-making, but what Malick is doing here still tries to conform to a narrative structure, with characters and story arcs, and that’s where the film will fail for most viewers, who are desperately trying to find a way to get rooted in the plights of any of the characters on the screen, only to find very little to identify with as they course through lives that have little ostensible meaning.

Qwipster’s rating: D

MPAA Rated: R for some sexuality, nudity, drug use and language
Running Time: 139 min.

Cast: Rooney Mara, Ryan Gosling, Michael Fassbender, Natalie Portman, Cate Blanchett, Holly Hunter, Berenice Marlohe, Lykke Li, Patti Smith, Linda Emond
Small role: Val Kilmer, Iggy Pop, Florence Welch, Anthony Kiedis, Flea
Director: Terrence Malick
Screenplay: Terrence Malick