Song One – The music of our united isolation. (film review)

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Like many films unfairly derided, if you skim the surface of Song One, and point-blank refuse to be seduced by its depths, there is plenty at which to poke a pointy critical stick. A small estranged family, already burdened by grief, are united over one member laying in a coma in hospital, by using music and various forms of warmth and connection. However this barely skims the surface of writer director Kate Barker-Froyland’s debut feature which above all else is a remarkably intimate tale primarily about being alone in the world and the power music has to accompany you through that solo journey. Like many films written by women about women, Song One’s integrity resides in an interior stillness that first needs to be felt before justified. Barker-Froyland exhibits a remarkable ability to build female character, and in this instance she has a fine performance from Anne Hathaway to support her writing and directing skills. Hathaway spends a great deal of the film crying, but as any woman knows, you go through times in life when you can’t stop crying, and all the accusations of turgid schmaltz matter little when we are plunged into a searing reality from which no hope can soar. Women live with these moments in a way many men can’t understand, and it must be said it is a great act of courage to portray it on the screen.

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Franny (Hathaway) plays an anthropologist living in Morocco, who has to suddenly return to New York when her mother Karen (Mary Steenburgen) calls to tell her that her young musician brother Henry (Ben Rosenfield) has been hit by a car and left in a coma. As she attempts to seek out the musicians and venues that Henry loved, she meets his idol James Forester (Johnny Flynn), and a strong romantic connection begins under the most tragic of circumstances. Franny cries – a lot – but never does it feel overwrought, rather it taps into a profound swelling universal sadness that hinges more on acceptance and self-awareness than it does on the coma of her brother.

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What is remarkable about Song One is the relationship Franny has with herself. Tragedy is depicted as having a resonating beauty, but no where is Song One more beautiful than in the scenes of Franny walking around by herself, tracing her brothers steps in order to record sounds for him, opening her heart and her ears to the indie folk music scene of Brooklyn. The camera stands in front of her, watching her walk, eyes downcast, mind focussed on the music and the recording, or it nestles in behind, close to the back of her head, suddenly showing her walking an empty street, then back on her face, then behind her again. The camera watches her be deeply sad. And the perfect accompaniment to her overwhelming aloneness in the face of her private tragedy is the Brooklyn folk scene. Franny moves from musical act to musical act, collecting sensory stimuli for her brother (sounds here, smells there) and we move with her, noticing the Brooklyn folk scene as she does.

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As we learn Franny has a loving but mutually tolerant relationship with her mother Karen and her brother has disappeared into a coma, we see Franny as an every woman, coming to terms with the truth of her isolation. It is within the bounds of this realisation she begins a beautiful love affair with James Forester, that also manages to emphasise the solitude in connection. There is a strong charisma between the two actors, but this is a film about the tragedy of our separation, and so Barker-Froyland only reveals the love affair with eye level gazes over the shoulder of the listener as they watch the other talk. Franny and James are always apart, and the director never closes that gap, even as they fall in love. When the love scene does occur, it is after the considered focus of the camera first on the face of Franny as she watches James and then the reverse. Each considers the other from the place where they are alone, and each accept the inevitability of that aloneness when contemplating the love affair that will wash over them. Soon we realise, the man on the stage and the woman on the streets are as alone as the man in the coma. We can share love, music and experience, but we are always fully alone.

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The disjointed nature of the editing is posited against the unifying warmth of the music (written by Jenny lewis and Jonathan Rice and recorded live by Johnny Flynn) so the alienation is a beautifully inevitable tragedy rather than the angst ridden world of the 1970’s post modernist. This successfully conveys the Indie aesthetic as warm but hesitantly independent and always isolationist. The film is doused in muted hues, whites, greys, blues, in the day and graffiti walls, distant lit skylines and occasional neon at night. It’s always gently, carefully beautiful.

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Song One is not everyone’s cup of tea. If you’re not into the indie folk scene, Brooklyn arts culture or the gentle beauty in an everyday tragedy, the film could seem to trudge along. But it is sparked up by a warm and hopeful contemporary romance, and there is no doubting Flynn’s gentle, non threatening sex appeal. I enjoyed Song One a great deal more than I expected, and as usual am suggesting you skip the reviews as irrelevant (except this one of course) and dive into Song One head first.

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