Instead of a spoiler alert, I wish to preface this with an unfavourable review warning. Song to Song is not the movie you want it to be. In fact, it is in its own category of ‘do not watch’.
When the reclusive writer-director Terrence Malick returned to filmmaking in the late 1990s, there was the genuine expectation that he might produce another American masterpiece to follow Badlands and Days of Heaven made during the 1970s. He definitely has developed a style: multiple voiceovers, reflections rather than conversations, naturalistic rather than ‘forced’ acting – his cast don’t give performances, they allow themselves to be filmed doing and reacting to things, whilst occasionally uttering improvised dialogue. The camera records the action (such as it is) like a gopher offering the actors a drink that they do not want. It circles the actors, following them, focusing on faces, hands, feet. I cannot imagine that Malick gives his actors a shooting script rather a scenario. In the case of Song To Song, a film completed in 2015 but only now being released, he brought a quintet of stars – Rooney Mara, Michael Fassbender, Ryan Gosling, Natalie Portman and Cate Blanchett – to the Austin, Texas-based music and film festival, South by Southwest, making them reflect on ambition and relationships, whilst setting some of it to music – to quote the strap-line from the long-running radio series, ‘I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue’, a reference that seems entirely appropriate here.
What unspools is two hours and nine minutes of unbridled boredom, in which the viewer is invited to reflect, ‘why am I here? Why do I watch movies? Is this a movie? Why can’t Malick make films with real people who are closer to the characters instead of stars? Is it because he needs finance? But what do the actors get out of it? Where’s the exit?
I could tell you the plot, not that it matters. Rooney Mara’s would-be singer is in a relationship with Ryan Gosling’s songwriter. She is also involved with Michael Fassbender’s musical promoter. Mara and Gosling break up. Mara and Fassbender break up. Fassbender hooks up with Portman. Gosling hooks up with Blanchett. Patti Smith (as herself) talks to Mara. John Lydon and Iggy Pop talk to the camera. There is no gratuitous nudity not involving the female leads. Mara has a strained relationship with her father.
There may be character names but we don’t hear them. It is as if names symbolise the cult of individuality, and Malick’s not having it. It is enough that these are multiplex darlings crushed in an arthouse environment. It is all part of the ebb and flow of life. At some point, there are piercings.
When we think about storytelling, we deal with the following characteristics: empathy, expectation, emotion. Malick is above all of these – he eschews ‘e’ for ‘z’ (as in zzz). His film doesn’t revel in performance – it is the opposite of a music film. At one point we see characters in zero gravity – the working title was Weightless. The film itself has no weight.
Sometimes a director’s statement can help us make sense of the visual torture we have endured. There is none. The film isn’t so much released as being abandoned like an unwanted baby left in front of orphanage. But in those circumstances, you have sympathy for mother and child. Here you have no sympathy for anyone, nada, except weirdly Patti Smith who may have had the impression she is being listened to.
The musical pearls of wisdom are the only thing you take away from Song to Song. John Lydon explains how you obey your parents as a child so you can do the opposite as an adult. Iggy Pop complains about music being used to sell movies – that’s not what it is for. On the dramatic front, Gosling complains about being exploited, to which Fassbender replies ‘didn’t I make you rich?’
Song to Song doesn’t feel like a movie. It is like fragments of an evening – of a lifetime – you remember after a night of alcohol. The scenes aren’t consecutive. You feel nauseous. After watching this film, I never want to see another Terrence Malick film again. Please don’t read that as a recommendation.
Song to Song is out on DVD & Blu-Ray now!