Texas. Struggling musician Faye (Rooney Mara) is drawn to both good guy songwriter BV (Ryan Gosling) and manipulative music mogul Cook (Michael Fassbender). The relationships get strained when Cook screws BV over a copyright issue and offers Faye a recording contract, and then the situation becomes more complex when new partners enter the picture.
Welcome back to Malickland, the perma-twilight world where Hollywood’s most beautiful wander around fields/beaches/city underpasses while their disconnected musings whisper on the soundtrack. Terrence Malick’s eighth drama doesn’t deviate a jot from his normal MO. Thematically, it is perhaps closest to the portrayal of jealousy and betrayal in 2012’s To The Wonder, but Malick finds a more engaging iteration of these emotions, still shot through with formally exquisite filmmaking but buoyed by the movie-star charisma of Michael Fassbender, Rooney Mara and particularly Ryan Gosling.
In the end, Malick isn’t interested in prose, only poetry.
In outline, Song To Song is a simple relationship drama about an aspiring musician, Faye (Mara), who flits between likeable songwriter BV (Gosling), and predatory music producer Cook (Fassbender, doing his pervy scoundrel thing) — we know he is dark because he has a big, glass house and serves entrées off the bellies of naked women. Yet, in Malick’s hands, this wisp of a plot becomes a framework to hang a series of fragments illustrating the film’s central idea — the search for living an authentic life, be it through romantic love, parental connections, sex or music. Malick certainly doesn’t shy away from Big Themes: nature versus grace, the difficulty of monogamy and the difference between our public and private lives all come under the microscope.
But this is Malick at his most accessible. Like the Fernando’s sections of Take Me Out directed by the world’s most visually adept filmmaker, we get to hang out with Faye and BV as they go to gigs, goof around in open-top cars and throw loo rolls from high-rise buildings. At one point Fassbender even does an orangutan impression. You have to work to join the dots, but particularly in the Faye/BV scenes, the vignettes take on a beautiful, almost balletic quality. If nothing else, the film will keep Twitter in Movie Stars Do Cute Things gifs for years.
The musical element also serves to enliven Malick as well. Set against the backdrop of SXSW, we get cameos by Patti Smith, Iggy Pop, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Lykke Li and John Lydon and the soundtrack pulses with an eclectic mix of EDM, classical, ’50s pop and singer-songwriter-y musings. Malick also throws up Val Kilmer chainsawing an amp in front of a baying crowd. Once seen, never forgotten.
It’s when the character’s lives get more complex that the limitations in Malick’s performance-art aesthetic become more apparent. As Faye, BV and Cook fall into relationships with different people, it cries out for well-rounded characters, motivations and context. Natalie Portman does terrific work as a waitress who falls under Cook’s spell, but Cate Blanchett as BV’s new flame barely registers and Bérénice Marlohe, as Faye’s partner, feels like a fantasy figure.
In the end, Malick isn’t interested in prose, only poetry. A recurring image is a mosh pit in all its aggressive, sweaty glory that speaks to the film’s manifesto of living from “song to song, kiss to kiss”. This is what Malick’s film (and cinema) does. And of course, it is the most beautiful, lyrical mosh pit you’ve ever seen.
Never reaching the heights of Malick’s ’70s heyday (what does?), Song To Song represents some kind of return to form following Knight Of Cups. It won’t convert the unconvinced, but it is beautiful, melancholic, audacious and well-played, a refinement rather than reinvention of a singular filmmaker.