Toronto 2013: 'Can a Song Save Your Life?' shows that 'Once' is enough

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Image Credit: Film Images

In a culture that thrives on irony, detachment, the postmodern hum of advertising, and the communicative cool enforced by technology, good old sincerity — remember that golden oldie? — can seem not just out-of-date but a little embarrassing. Who wants to be caught saying what they mean and meaning what they say, or wearing their heart on their earnest, pleading sleeve? John Carney does. He’s the Irish-born writer-director of Can a Song Save Your Life?, an unapologetically sincere movie that is modeled on the beautiful, almost desperate sincerity of the music-movie that put Carney on the map: Once, that lovely and enchanting 2007 pop bagatelle about two lost souls who connect through song, and who find a love so ethereal that it transcends even…love. At the time, Once felt like a one-of-a-kind movie, and I think it was, but Carney has other ideas. He’s out to make that gentle wistful lightning strike twice.

The new film, which is set in New York City (mostly the litter-strewn art-and-beer enclave of NoLiTa), opens in a scruffy bar, where Greta (Keira Knightley), a pale waif who is looking notably distraught, is coerced by a friend into coming up on stage to sing a number with her guitar, and she does, and it’s a softly affecting ballad about being alone in the city. No one in the club pays her any attention, until we notice a rather disheveled middle-aged man in the back who is not just watching her but beaming. It is Dan (Mark Ruffalo), who turns out to be a music-industry executive whose life is falling into the gutter. He’s a sloppy drunk, separated from his wife (Catherine Keener) and teenage daughter (the terrific Hailee Steinfeld), and he lives in a lousy crash-pad apartment and drives around town in an ancient battered black Jaguar that is clearly a relic of his days from a very different music industry.

We have no idea why his marriage is breaking up, but when Dan stumbles into a meeting at the independent record label he started, it’s clear that he hasn’t evolved with the times. After giving us a glimpse of the wreck his life and career have become, the movie circles back to that opening scene — only this time we see Greta’s performance from Dan’s point of view, as he imagines the instruments on stage (first drums, then piano, then a cello) literally playing themselves, and as each one is added in, the audience hears Greta’s modest voice and guitar as he’s hearing them in his head, with a lushly swelling MOR backdrop, and cornball as it is, the moment works. When Dan comes up to Greta after the performance and hands her his card, we want to go: Yes, sign with this guy! Make a whole album — a whole movie — of songs just like that!

She does, and that’s basically the plot of Can a Song Save Your Life? For a while, the film seems like a kindred spirit of Once, but also a lot different (the grunge Manhattan settings, the record corporation babble, the marquee movie stars). And so I was a little taken aback to see that Carney follows the template of his earlier movie in a far more literal way. Greta and Dan, as they start to make an album, have what may look like a romantic connection, but they’re each haunted by the other lover in their lives: Dan by his estranged wife, and Greta by the budding rock-star boyfriend who just broke up with her — a sweet-talking narcissist played, in his movie debut, by Adam Levine. This last breakup seems pretty definitive, not only because he falls hard for somebody else, but because Levine plays a coldly handsome self-adoring dickwad with, shall we say, a fair amount of conviction. Yet in order to be a movie that’s just like Once, Can a Song Save Your Life? begins to nudge its two main characters back into the arms of the people they’ve split from. And where the film starts to get into trouble, I think, is that the amorous pull of movie stardom fights the story. Knightley, tremulous and heartfelt, is very good, and Ruffalo, who knows how to do bluster and cut it with tenderness, clearly enjoys dancing around her. But where the just-friends resolution of Once was sublime, here, we seem to be watching a kind of romantic musical about two people who connect and then aren’t allowed to follow through on it.

Of course, it’s the music that’s supposed to carry the story’s fragile emotional logic, and the songs in Can a Song Save Your Life? are, I think, quite effective. They’re consciously retro sentimental pop — think Sheryl Crow meets Norah Jones — and they make this an easy-listening movie that your sappy inner dweeb can sway to. Still, I could have lived without the rather precious contrivance of Greta and Dan deciding to make their demo album by recording each song outside, in a different New York location. (There are colorful backdrops, from the Washington Square Arch to a rooftop that looks up at the Empire State Building, but the notion, seriously proferred by the movie, that these locations will somehow make the songs sound better is just soft-headed mush.) And I could have lived, as well, without the scenes in which Adam Levine sports a big bushy beard — he looks like an Amish nightclub bouncer. I’m glad, I seriously am, that John Carney wants to make deeply and embarrassingly sincere musical movies, and I hope he keeps on making them, but let’s also hope he realizes that when it comes to Once, once was enough.

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Introducing his new documentary, The Unknown Known, in which he interviews — though, I’m afraid, doesn’t quite grill — Donald Rumsfeld, Errol Morris, who has made several splendid documentaries about the politics of war (The Fog of War, Standard Operating Procedure), expressed a sense of grateful wonder that Rumsfeld had ever agreed to sit down and be interviewed for more than 30 hours in front of Morris’s specially rigged Interretron camera. But when you see the movie, you know why: Donald Rumsfeld is man who likes to hear himself talk. That, after all, was the real message of all those realpolitik Zen koans (“Stuff happens,” “You go to war with the army you have,” “Osama bin Laden is either alive and well or alive and not too well or not alive”) that he dropped into his daily press conferences during the Iraq War. He wasn’t saying anything notable, but he was making his prankish obfuscations the real story, a gambit that the press fell for.

Morris obviously thought it was a real coup to do a film on Rumsfeld, as it was when he got Robert McNamara to sit down and confess his doubts and mistakes during Vietnam in The Fog of War. But McNamara hailed from a time when even right-wing architects of slaughter were men of character. Donald Rumsfeld, when he was Secretary of Defense, was basically a publicist. The Iraq War wasn’t his idea; it was dreamed up, and planned, back in 1995 — that’s right, 1995 — by neocons led by Paul Wolfowitz. Dick Cheney and George W. Bush then took the Wolfowitz plan out of a drawer like an old screenplay they had finally decided to make. Rumsfeld’s job became selling the damn thing, and though that meant that he was often lying through his teeth, the fact that he genuinely believed many of his own lies only became a testament to what a goofy lightweight zealot he was.

He’s still lying, as when Morris asks him how the American people could ever have believed that Saddam Hussein had any connection to al Qaeda, and Morris looks him right in the eye — or, rather, right in the eye of the Interretron — and says nope, they never believed that, and we in the administration never thought they believed that, or tried to get them to believe that. Then Morris plays a clip of Rumsfeld at one of those press conferences, sputtering with indignation at the notion that anyone could not believe that Saddam Hussein was connected to al Qaeda.

But here’s the question: As a documentary journalist, what do you do with a man like this? Morris lets Rumsfeld prattle on, encouraging him to quote from the tens of thousands of “memos” that he churned out like notes to be stuck in fortune cookies during his tenure in Washington. The memos are stray thoughts, directives, and random bits of Rumsfeldiana, and I think that Morris focuses on them in order to make the point that George Orwell did in his 1946 essay “Politics and the English Language”: that in corrupt governments, words are used not to communicate but as a kind of fascist confetti, a smokescreen for action. We get it, and Donald Rumsfeld is an engaging master at it, but to make the playfully convoluted, semi-nonsensical aggression of his language the whole point is, in a way, to fall into the trap of mistaking the spin for the story. I guess you go into a movie with the big-fish interview subject you have, but the bottom line, for me, is that Errol Morris should have waited to make a film about Dick Cheney, who’d probably reveal more to the Interrotron when he was revealing nothing than Donald Rumsfeld does when he won’t shut up.

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