The musical film Song to Song (2017) is writer and director Terrence Malick’s latest. He’s made relatively few films in a career that began in the 1970s. Each of them has moments of great beauty including Days of Heaven (1978).
Song to Song shares some of that lyricism but doesn’t cohere like the earlier films. With constant cutting back and forth between a series of lovely backdrops, a story, of sorts, emerges. BV (Ryan Gosling) is a musician on the fringes of the Austin music scene. His friend and manager is Cook (Michael Fassbender). They become adversaries when Faye (Rooney Mara) a singer and Cook’s receptionist, comes between them. The setup might sound traditional but the delivery is anything but. Visuals are given priority over plot as scenes end abruptly or drag on endlessly. The flashback and flash forward fractured storytelling style sometimes works, sometimes serves only to confuse.
Characters come and go with little introduction or explanation. Natalie Portman is Rhonda, a waitress who fascinates Cook. Cate Blanchett and Holly Hunter give added support.
Peter Gavaris commented in The Heights:
Even while featuring an assortment of A-listers like Gosling, Fassbender, Mara, and Portman, the film’s stars are writer/director Terrence Malick and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki. Malick’s grand vision is incredibly ambitious, as he brings together a medley of philosophical ideas with the beautiful images provided by Lubezki’s wandering camera. Often, a character would mutter something incredibly profound—the stillness and patient beauty of the film gave viewers ample time to ponder such questions. Under Malick’s direction, characters act like real human beings, showing their love in delicate touches, playful tackles, and tender hugs. Furthermore, Lubezki’s images evoke the fleeting nature of memory: how we seem to hold dearly onto small fragmented moments that serve to define certain time in our life or an old relationship. The effect, therefore, of having seen Malick’s film, is that one seems to recall the fictional relationships depicted in ephemeral moments of time, as if viewers had lived through the events of the film.
I agree with that to an extent but the film also seems rudderless, at times. For example, Gosling plays a similar musician character in La La Land where the actor benefitted from Damien Chazelle’s more hands-on direction. In Song to Song, Gosling has screen time but we’re not as invested in the character because of Malick’s laziness.
Rock and roll wise woman Patti Smith, playing herself, fares better. She shows up intermittently as a music scene truth teller. Smith provides the emotional glue holding the piece together, something the voiceover narration by the actors attempts but only partially succeeds at doing. Iggy Pop, John Lydon, Val Kilmer and Flea from The Red Hot Chili Peppers also have cameos.