How Song One rises above lazy cliches
Kate Barker-Froyland's Song One — the 2014 Sundance-premiering film that finally hits limited release this week — is the rare movie that thrives on simplicity. Anne Hathaway stars as Franny, a PhD candidate in anthropology who returns to New York when she learns that her estranged brother Henry (Ben Rosenfield) is in a coma. Faced with the possibility of losing him, and confronted by a mother (Mary Steenburgen) who's still upset with Franny's decision to move away and isolate herself in her work, Franny is given the jolt she needs to get out of her own head and see her brother as a person and not a sibling.
At first, she's the silent visitor sitting vigil. But when a friend leaves a cat-waving tchotchke amongst the gifts sitting at Henry's bedside, Franny's mind breaks through her pain. She begins to see her brother and his care anthropologically. Armed with his journal, she reads about his favorite haunts, visits his apartment, and begins to see the world through Henry's eyes. She finally listens to the music he's been sending her for months, and begins to collect the instruments he loves and the environmental sounds of his world. Soon, his room is full of his sensory experiences — the sounds he'd hear while walking, her playing the instruments he loved to play, the pancakes he'd eat at his favorite diner, and ultimately, the voice of his favorite musician. In her journey to provoke her brother into consciousness, Franny also meets James Forester (Johnny Flynn), a musician trapped in the monotony of his mid-level indie fame.
This is where the average movie might descend into cinematic cliches. But instead, Barker-Froyland uses the narrative to explore the isolation each character is caught in, and the ways sensory experiences inspire new perspectives.
As an anthropology student, Franny is in an "academic cocoon" at the beginning of the film, Barker-Froyland told The Week. But "in really starting to engage with his world, and by using the skills she knows from studying anthropology, she taps into other ways of trying to wake her brother up and indulge in more sensory pleasures herself."
"At its heart," says Barker-Froyland, Song One "is about characters trying to figure things out. […] Music happens to be the backdrop — the thing that brings them together and that they experience together.”
Given the title and subject matter, it's no surprise that the film's music — a mix of classics from the likes of Nina Simone and America, plus original songs written by Jenny Lewis and Johnathan Rice — is ever-present. Barker-Froyland was inspired by the similar use of music in a host of other classics. She gushes about the way Wong Kar-Wai incorporated "California Dreamin" into a soundtrack for his heroine in Chungking Express; how integral Nick Cave's show turns out to be in Wings of Desire; and most notably, a scene from Robert Altman's Nashville. "I adore the scene where Keith Carradine is singing onstage and Lily Tomlin, Shelly Duvall, and Geraldine Chaplin are sitting in the audience, listening," she says. "The way the song narrates exactly what's going on emotionally — how each woman is moved by it, and feels that this song is being sung for her — is masterful."
Song One plays like a longer version of that Nashville scene. Throughout the film, music serves as idiosyncratic provocation of any number of competing emotions, from sadness to happiness to a kind of feverish release. The charm of the film is the way it makes Franny's sensory journey as worthwhile for the audience as it is for her, her family, and James. The film pauses on scenes of musicians plying their craft, allowing for Franny to deal with her pain, and by extension, the audience to experience its own response.
The film tasks its characters — and by extension, the audience — with acknowledging the intimate connection between sensory experience and emotional resonance. Music isn't a conduit to a specific meaning, but a celebration of the ways moments can invoke any number of meanings. It's a reminder that the environment something is experienced in can be essential to understanding. Song One is a call to embrace beautiful, genuine, sensory experiences in a world increasingly dominated by irony and computer screens.
Franny gathers old instruments Henry loved, each armed with their own particular sounds. She carefully sniffs M&Ms to check the strength of their smell before holding them to her brother's nose. Her mother urges her to sing along with America for James and herself — the sound of her voice, even full of embarrassment, holding the power of a lost moment in time.
Song One's biggest strength, however, is its acknowledgment that ideas, however powerful, don't lead to a finite resolution on their own. James won't magically become a whole, perfect singer-songwriter if he goes to bed with Franny, and she won't become a new person by experiencing Henry's world or helping break James out of a rut. No one will run off into the sunset hand in hand. Song One simply recognizes that life is ongoing, and that happiness isn't an end. What matters is the happiness and enrichment of one specific moment in time, not figuring out where your whole life might end up.
Song One is like the dance floors of the many Brooklyn venues Franny visits — offering a different and worthwhile way to connect, and reminding us of the small joys we absorb along the way.