Through circumstance and design, the first film I saw at Toronto was John Carney’s new film, Can a Song Save Your Life? It has been nearly seven years since Carney’s lyrical, transcendent Once detonated public consciousness at Sundance.
The setting is transposed, from Dublin to New York, but the new film is very much of a piece, thematically and stylistically. It feels very much like a remake, or at least, a cover of Once; Carney’s working with a larger budget, a bigger crew and better-known actors, though the approach is a risky formal strategy. Once was a jewel with its own idiom, tone and emotional undercurrents. It was elusive, beautiful and fragile, and it captured moments and feelings, unmediated, heartbreaking, between people, artists, who were vulnerable, lonely, even avid for each other.
Once had a spontaneity, verve and openness that is captured rather than re-created; the danger was not in the repetition of ideas but in damaging the precise and lyrical emotional rhythms. In retrospect, the casting proved miraculous. Whatever they lacked technically, Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová conveyed something direct and pure, emotionally unvarnished that Carney very intuitively played off.
In both films now, Carney has woven in an interesting idea of where the central relationship is not consummated sexually but musically. The story here is closer to pastiche, redolent of forties desperation and romantic redemption about the emotional interaction of two solitary, haunted individuals.
Like Once, the new film is predicated on a palpable romantic attraction that remains sublimated because of larger emotional complications. Keira Knightley plays Greta, an emotionally bruised singer and songwriter whose impromptu number at an East Village hangout captures the fancy of formerly prominent independent music label executive turned wastrel, Dan (Mark Ruffalo).
Interestingly, the film has certain formal and structural affinities with the Coen Brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis. Carney elliptically narrows his concerns and delves inside his two principals through an adroit and inventive use of flashbacks. Like Hansard’s volatile street musician, her abandon and sexual betrayal is triggered by the memory of a video, captured from an iPhone. (In Once, framed by the song “Lies,” the video is viewed through a laptop.)
Song has a screwball, musically inflected rhythm (one of the films I thought of was Lewis Milestone’s great Depression-era fantasia, Hallelujah I'm a Bum, especially the most stylized moment of the film of him imagining her being accompanied by a full-piece band) about loss and recovery. Like Once, it’s about the emotional primacy of music, about how the underlying feelings and buried emotions are colored and deepened through nuance and feeling.
Ruffalo’s shambling and disheveled work denotes a man out of time, unable or unwilling to adapt to the rapid technological and commercial vicissitudes of the business and left on the outside looking in. She is his salvation. The film turns on the believability of Knightley as a capable singer-songwriter, and she delivers the goods. The plot turns on his ability to produce, on the fly, using actual street locations and professional musicians, an album that reaffirms her ability.
It is a movie that comments on its own making, and the autobiographical connections are palpable (Carney dedicates the film to his brother, Jim). The film also seems to meditate on Carney’s own life and career in the aftermath of Once, where he got on the radar of Hollywood. In fact, after what was originally announced as his American debut fell apart, Carney wrote and directed two small, genre-defying films that he made in Ireland.
Carney was a former musician who played in Hansard’s seminal Irish band The Frames. During one fantastic rooftop jam, Ruffalo’s producer jumps and performs a few riffs of his own. Carney privileges the form’s innate individualism. Again the best thing about the musical numbers is the freedom and generosity he allows his performers, playing songs in their duration and shooting them in a watery, fluid style.
It’s not as bitter and melancholy, like Once, capturing the divide between what one longs for and what is realistically available. It is a happier, more optimistic piece that radiates a joy and pleasure.
Image courtesy of the Toronto International Film festival