It was silly of me to think that a Terrence Malick movie set against the backdrop of the Austin music scene would come anywhere close to capturing the reality of that scene, or even the music industry in general. But the idea seemed almost promising, or an least like an exciting prospect: Get a bunch of big-name musicians to appear — Lykke Li, Patti Smith, and Iggy Pop have the most memorable roles, but it’s filled with blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameos from Big Freedia, Tegan And Sara, Diplo, and Florence Welch, and smaller parts for the Red Hot Chili Peppers, John Lydon, and Neon Indian’s Alan Palomo — and shoot amidst the festival chaos that happens during South By Southwest, Austin City Limits, and Fun Fun Fun Fest. But Song To Song is in step with Malick’s more recent work — Knight Of Cups in particular with its Hollywood focus — in that it wastes a potentially interesting setting by indulging in vacuous interpersonal melodrama where the stakes feel just as low as our investment in the characters, and the location is little more than a vessel.
The story is simple enough, though Malick’s preference for a nonlinear narrative makes it needlessly complicated to follow along. Young songwriter Faye (Rooney Mara) is our entry point into Malick’s Austin. She starts sleeping with music business executive Cook (Michael Fassbender) in hopes of getting ahead in the industry — “I thought you had to know the right people, get close to them,” Mara says in a heavy-handed voiceover at the start of the film. It doesn’t work out, of course, and while still seeing Cook, Faye gets involved and falls in love with struggling musician BV (Ryan Gosling). Cook and BV also have a contentious creative relationship, and thus begins our triangle. Eventually, BV finds out about Faye cheating on him with Cook and leaves her, and all three of them embark on new relationships at different points in the film: Cook with Natalie Portman’s character Rhonda, a waitress who meets a tragic fate thanks to his emotional unavailability; BV with Cate Blanchett’s Amanda; and Mara tries out a new path with a character portrayed by Bérénice Marlohe. But none of these pairings feel particularly fated or worth the overwrought attention they’re given, and the takeaway from the film is an empty sort of “live life from song to song because you never know when it’s going to be your last” type of message.
Pretty underwhelming, huh? Malick is talented, of course, so there are a lot of beautifully shot scenes and individual moments that almost reach poignancy during the film’s two-hour runtime. And the central cast comprises top-notch actors who do their best to sell their roles, but nothing coheres in any meaningful or significant way. As with most of Malick’s films this decade, it asks half-questions with no answers. And while conclusions or grand themes aren’t necessary to make a great movie, his listlessness here feels so uninspired. There doesn’t seem to be much of a point to it beyond watching pretty (exclusively white) people do banal things, with a lot of pristine Austin architecture in the background.
Though both Mara and Gosling’s characters are “struggling” musicians, at no point in the film does it feel like they’re putting in any of the hard work that goes along with being successful. Music is used as an accessory, and not even a compelling one at that. There’s very little commentary on the interplay between business and the arts — the relationship between Gosling and Fassbender’s characters grows increasingly contentious throughout the film as BV comes to the realization that Cook screwed him out of money in his contract, but the most it amounts to is a couple of bottles smashed on the floor of a bar in a display of machismo.
There’s no indication that any of these people are talented, though the scenes of Mara yucking it up on stage with a backing band played by the Black Lips while Val Kilmer chainsaws an amp or the number of times Gosling serenades with a guitar seem to suggest we’re supposed to think that they have that special spark. During one of the central couple’s first meetings together, they bond over music that Faye is listening to on an iPod Classic while standing poolside at a ritzy party. Sharing an earbud pair can be an intimate bonding moment between lovers, but there’s nothing in the film to suggest any sort of that fire between them. It’s not even really apparent that Mara’s character wants to be a musician until Cook offers to sign her to a record contract at one point, creating the jealously that eventually eats away at her relationship with BV.
The closest that the film gets to capturing the intense passion and dedication that comes with making music are the few times it allows the actual musicians to speak from the heart. Patti Smith plays herself in a couple of scenes as a mentor to Mara’s character, and in one she talks about the death of her husband and her doubts about ever being an artist with longevity. “I never thought I would live long,” she says. “You know, I’d be an artist and die young of tuberculosis or something, like Charlotte Brontë.” Lykke Li appears in the film as one of Gosling’s lovers who is also a musician, and her character — who is analogous to but not completely herself — has some interesting things to say about the economy of fame, but it’s undercut by a flat performance of her and Gosling covering Bob Marley And The Wailers’ “It Hurts to Be Alone.” Even Iggy Pop’s brief, frenetic appearance backstage at a festival has a certain electricity to it that lacks in most of the scenes between the actors who are playing musicians.
If only those lived-in experiences had translated over to the plodding love affairs that occupy the rest of the film, maybe Malick could have drawn some parallels between the struggles of love and the struggles of creating art. And while there’s a fun jolt of recognition, as a music writer and fan, in watching Mara looking downtrodden and tired, leaning against a fence with FADER Fort wristbands up and down her arm, it ultimately means nothing and doesn’t feel true to the reality of creating music today. Maybe that wasn’t Malick’s intention with the film at all, but then why choose such an oddly specific backdrop and weirdly insular world to tell what appears to be yet another story of boring, hot people feeling dissatisfied? That can be done anywhere, and it has been done much more compellingly than this.
Song To Song premiered at SXSW last Friday. It opens in select theaters on 3/17.