From the melodramatic title alone, Can a Song Save Your Life? might lead you to believe that Irish director John Carney is the latest victim of one of the entertainment industry’s most destructive trends: The Guy Ritchie Effect. You’d be right to make such an inference, as Carney’s follow-up (give or take a little released alien invasion comedy) to the shoestring budgeted winner Once shows many of the telltale signs that come when a distinct voice gets drowned out trying to harmonize with Hollywood. Just as the madcap and scrappy zeal of Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels was dulled in the process of cleaning up and legitimizing Ritchie’s style for broader appeal in Snatch, Can a Song Save Your Life? takes Carney’s original formula, and refines it for ease of mass consumption.
Thing is, Snatch is a pretty entertaining as hell movie, just as Can a Song Save Your Life? is still a thoroughly charming musical dramedy, despite having almost none of Once’s indie spirit – or at least, none of the authenticity to that spirit that would make it feel personal, instead of carefully, deliberately manufactured. “You think Dylan’s authentic? With the hair and sunglasses? Why do you think he updates his look every decade,” Mark Ruffalo’s character says to Keira Knightley’s at one point, providing an in-film defense. The musician the two do agree on as being truly authentic is too funny to spoil, but does speak to the film’s underlying belief that sentiment matters more than style. If you buy into that belief, you’re in for a great time.
Ruffalo gives a typically shaggy and swaggering (Ruffaloian, in a word) performance as Dan, a down on his luck record producer looking for a hit new act at the bottom of a bottle of bourbon. Kicked off the label he founded after wasting too many years betting on long shots, and letting his strained marriage get the worst of him, Dan has his date with the third rail of an MTA subway line interrupted by Greta, a brokenhearted Brit also looking to escape New York, just in a plane instead of a body bag. With the voice of an angel, the face of Keira Knightley, and callused fingers to match her disposition, Greta is just the kind of diamond in the divebar rough that Dan’s been searching for, and the two agree to record an album on the quick and dirty all across the city, hoping to launch Greta’s musical career, and revive Dan’s own.
Even if you haven’t seen or heard of Once, Can a Song Save Your Life? will be instantly familiar to you if you have even a vague understanding of the life trajectory dreamers and underdogs tend to have in these types of movies. The higher profile leads alone allow for plenty of storytelling shorthand, with Knightley looking and sounding exactly like an acoustic sensation waiting to happen, and Ruffalo, having done so many time before, perfectly inhabiting the role of a guy who looks like he smells like wet dog. The two have a terrific chemistry together despite the age differential, and that it’s a respectfully platonic one may be the film’s biggest distinguishing characteristics.
The respective partners of the two leads provide a perfect example of the dual identities battling one another through the entirety of Can a Song Save Your Life? Having Dan’s wife be played by arthouse regular Catherine Keener adds a certain amount of indie cred, as does the presence of True Grit’s Hailee Steinfeld as the estranged pair’s adolescent daughter. On the flip side, you have Maroon 5’s Adam Levine cast as Greta’s rising star of a boyfriend, who’s looking to give up the life of a starving artist in exchange for success in an industry dominated by pop music confectioner.
Like Brad Pitt in Snatch, Levine’s inclusion comes off mostly as a marketing move, with a performance built more around affect (here in the form of a beard that grows more wildly by the scene, instead of Pitt’s incomprehensible gypsy accent), than an actual character. Levine is also joined by his fellow Voice judge CeeLo Green, as the last successful man in town willing to do Dan any favors, and Mos Def adds an equally absurd bit of facial hair to the proceedings as the former label partner Dan is desperate to impress.
There’s a strong, confused feeling of Carney biting the hand feeding him such popular, bankable musicians, given that the film is written as a love letter to the little guy. Can a Song Save Your Life? likes extolling the honor of independent artists almost as much as blasting the superficiality and greed of the industry they yearn to break into, sounding at times like a well-off New York hipster complaining about gentrification, despite being the main cause of it. Small details like a typewriter credit font, and the squalor of Greta’s apartment are engineered to project the image of a film that comes from the heart, instead of the factory line, but the packaging is too slick and clean to make the ruse believable. Add to that a few egregious instances of product placement, and it becomes easy to suspect Carney of selling out.
And yet, the film works – marvellously, in fact. Viewers with a heightened sensitivity to theater disturbances will find themselves upset by the reverberations of toe-tapping that will overtake the theater, as the musical performances are a lively delight that Carney captures with great energy. The script is chockablock with funny, endearing dialogue, and memorable bit players who aren’t also Top 40 charters. Carney even allows time for the two leads to dig below the surface of their characters, teasing out some emotional deep cuts that get played to the hilt by each. Ironically, the artificiality the film struggles with actually lends itself towards creating a genuinely tense climax; when Greta is faced with the choice between an authentic life or a superficial one, you honestly don’t know which way she’s going to go.
Like any of the empty and disposable popular music its characters like to poke fun at, Can a Song Save Your Life? is overproduced, and more than a little fake. But it carries a sweet, and catchy tune that will likely win you over, even if you’re fully aware of the cold calculation that comes with an artist dedicating his or herself to making a hit.