Laremy Legel September 9, 2013
You know that “hang in there” poster, the one with the little kitten hanging off a ledge? That’s “Can a Song Save Your Life?”, a film that inserts banal plot devices and endless cutesiness in place of where the “good parts” should be. The problem? There are certain techniques that bad movies use to get on your good side, and John Carney’s latest film uses music to cheat storytelling. You’ll watch at least seven or eight full songs played, which works for a film like “Once”, but not so much here, probably because, in a rush to get to the next song, they don’t do much at all with the script. It ends up playing like an endless and quickly tiresome string of movie montages. A shame really, given Keira Knightley’s lovely singing voice and Mark Ruffalo’s usual charm, this could have been something great.
The premise of the film is pretty solid. Dan (Mark Ruffalo) is a down on his luck music producer. Well, really, he’s the co-founder of an indie record label, but he sold out to his partner due to some emotional distress. Gretta (Keira Knightley) is a downtrodden musician, about to quit The United States entirely to head back to London. They find each other in a small New York City bar, she’s playing her acoustic medleys, he’s looking for any way out of his miserable life. Kismet! And so a fledgling producer / struggling artist relationship is born, one that, wait for it, could just save the both of them. The film is told in a somewhat non-linear fashion, especially over the first half, which doesn’t really contribute to “Can a Song Save Your Life?” in any real way, but proves emblematic of the slapdash way this movie is held together.
Where “Can a Song Save Your Life?” starts going south is when Gretta is portrayed as an “authentic” singer / songwriter in the vein of Carol King or Norah Jones, only every time she sings you can tell it is completely lip synched and spruced up to the level of a top 40 hit. All of these moments are supposed to be organic, many occur outside in parks and on rooftops, meant to magnify what an amazing singer Gretta is, technically probably true, though I’m not sure how we’re supposed to tell given she’s never actually singing live. To be fair, if Knightley did do the singing here, even in a studio, it’s a great effort, she has a nice voice and the songs show lyrical depth and dexterity. If only they’d just put her, the character of Gretta, into a studio, where it would be expected for the songs to sound pristine, then this level of correction might have paid off. That choice wouldn’t have created such an obvious disconnect with the material, because you can’t sell your hero as someone who loves lo-fi productions only to run her voice through a few dozen sound mix sweeteners when she’s actually singing onscreen, supposedly “live”.
The trope level here is also high to quite high, especially the one where Ruffalo and his estranged teen daughter have to find their way back to a relationship through music. Additionally, though the film clearly loves music, and usually good music, in this day and age it’s odd to see Knightley and Ruffalo dancing through the streets of New York with their headphones on. Again, it doesn’t fit with the rest of the film, because there is no rest of the film, just a bunch of actors praying they can make it to the next song break. When music works in a film, and it does so all the time, it is woven in with grace (“Once” is a prime example of how this ought to work).
If credit is to be given to “Can a Song Save Your Life?” it should be given for the nontraditional choices made in the primary relationship of the film, Gretta and Dan. The actual songs, played on screen, are also legitimately good, it’s just doesn’t add up to a good film, though each music video taken separately might have worked for a group of five-minute films (anyone fancy a digital short?). Sadly, though they really put the theory to the test, no amount of songs can save this movie.
SCORE: 3.5 / 10
Laremy wrote the book on film criticism and would still probably buy this soundtrack.
Categories: ReviewsTags: Can a Song Save Your Life?, John Carney, Keira knightley, Laremy legel, Mark Ruffalo, Once, Review, TIFF, Toronto International Film Festival