It has been seven years since Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová stood on an Oscar stage, stunned and humbled while accepting the Best Song award for their timeless ditty, “Falling Slowly,” from Once. Slowly, the imitators of that modest Irish masterwork have started to appear. Song One, the debut film from Kate Barker-Froyland, owes much of its flavor and feeling to John Carney’s gen. From the downbeat acoustic touches and low-fi feel to the location shoots inside Williamsburg music stores and concert halls, her film tries to depict both the joy and grit involved in making music that Once displayed with ease. However, despite some lovely chemistry from the lead actors, Song One is too pleasant and not powerful enough to hook you into the central romance. Mere minutes after viewing the film, one also strains to remember how any of the tunes went.
Like an early scene from Once, Song One opens on a crooner strumming for cash in a public place, hoping his aching voice will draw some pathos from passersby. Mere minutes after pimply young musician Henry (Ben Rosenfield) finishes buskering by the subway, a braking car hits him and he collapses into a coma. The accident draws his older sister, Franny (a pixie-haired Anne Hathaway) back from Morocco, where she had been working on a Master’s thesis. Helpless by his bedside in the hospital, Franny returns home to find Henry’s journal. Inside are scribbles of song lyrics and a ticket to see his favorite singer/songwriter, James Forester (Johnny Flynn).
Franny decides to attend the James Forester show in her brother’s place. From the moment we see her drink in the pretty-voiced musician, with his evocative lyrics and finesse on the fiddle, we can guess with accuracy where the story is heading. Cue the shy initial meeting after the show, his gracious showing at the hospital days later and a slowly magnetizing romance between the indie rock star and the withdrawn Master’s student.
Many of the two-person scenes between the songbird and the student revolve around musical memories. She buys a keyboard, hoping the notes will provide serene music by Henry’s hospital bed. He plays her a mix tape of his favorite songs as he waits for musical inspiration. Besides their interest in music, there is little to distinguish either character. Alas, the songs he and she sing do not resonate much, since their struggles are almost as bland as their personalities. Suspiciously, the vocal prowess that aided Hathaway in Les Miserables two years ago is in short supply. She only sings in a few scenes, leaving much of the emotive lifting to her co-star.
Flynn and Hathaway share terrific chemistry, although neither of their characters behaves in ways that are spritely or spontaneous. The actor’s musical roots and the Oscar winner’s emotional range – Hathaway is a strong crier but never lets the tears overwhelm the performance – makes them well-suited for their parts. However, Barker-Froyland does not take a lot of chances with her screenplay, which takes many of its cues from Once and other musical facsimiles. Like that film, there is a musical deadline to meet – James has hit a bout of writer’s block and is expected to return to the studio. (Although he has writer’s block, it is hard to feel any frustration toward James’s creative lack.) There is also a potential expiration date for their fanciful relationship, as that studio is in Europe.
Hathaway is good company in the lead role, although she barely stretches as a shaken, fragile young woman trying to find direction in her life. Flynn has a layered howl that could draw swoons from the audience, although he is more impressive as a musician than an actor. Meanwhile, Mary Steenburgen appears as Henry and Franny’s mother, but is mostly reduced to playing a woman that constantly reminds her daughter (and therefore tells the audience) of Franny’s current flaws and past triumphs. (Steenburgen tries her best to add passion to lines of clunky exposition, as she spouts off about her dead husband and her failings as a mother in her first big scene.)
Like Once, Song One earns its low-key, communal feel through situating the action at real concert spaces and featuring a large breadth of local talent. (The tunes that Flynn sings come from songwriters Jenny Lewis and Johnathan Rice, who also worked on the score.) However, just as Barker-Froyland’s script slackens with the conflict, the musical sequences are missing the hooks needed to make her debut leap off the screen and into the audience’s heart. A great movie musical should tempt the audience to buy the soundtrack as soon as they leave the cinema. Song One’s tunes lack vigor and poignancy, diluting the story’s emotional power. There is no issue with a film about music’s power to heal and improve people’s spirits; however, the music resonates much less with the audience than it does with the characters.
Despite strong chemistry between Hathaway and Flynn, Song One is too slight and familiar, like a weak cover of an emotionally buoyant ballad.