Once, the 2007 Oscar-winning movie about the musical connection between a broken-hearted Dublin busker and a piano-playing Czech immigrant, was one of those rare movies whose charm couldn’t be bottled in a critic’s blurb or even explained in a full review. You just had to see it to fully understand how a simple story with simple characters could make you, the audience, feel wonderful and alive and believe wholeheartedly that a song could save your life. That movie starred Glen Hansard, the lead singer of the Irish band the Frames, and his ex-bandmate John Carney directed the film.
Six years later, Carney brought a new film to the Toronto Film Festival last week, and though he insists he intended to do something quite different than Once, there’s no denying that Can a Song Save Your Life? aims to strike a similar chord. Keira Knightley plays a sensitive songwriter whose musical partner and boyfriend (Adam Levine) is about to become famous because a few of his songs were in a hit movie. As his fame tears them apart, she wallows in despair at a New York open-mic night, where she’s “discovered” by a desperate A&R man (Mark Ruffalo) who is looking for anything to cling to. Like in Once, the creative process of making music is cinematic alchemy, and the two drifting souls eventually have to decide where — and with whom — they really belong.
When Can a Song Save Your Life? premiered last weekend in Toronto, where it was seeking a distribution deal, audiences — and buyers — were immediately entranced. Harvey Weinstein cornered Carney at the film’s post-premiere party and wouldn’t let their conversation end until the director made a deal with The Weinstein Company. The next day, TWC announced its $7 million acquisition (and a $20 million advertising commitment), guaranteeing that Can a Song Save Your Life? will play in theaters across the country when it opens, most likely in 2014. Carney spoke to EW about the music business, casting judges from The Voice, and what it’s like to get the hard-sell from someone like Harvey Weinstein.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: I suspect this movie will evoke a very similar audience reaction to Once, because these fragile characters also connect through their shared love of music. Where did this story begin for you?
JOHN CARNEY: I was thinking about what part of my life I could mine, and I felt that it would be fun to look back at A&R guys, who were always sort of looking for the next big thing. I was in a band after I left school, and I guess the ’90s were really that last hurrah of A&R craziness, with coke habits and five-star hotels and unlimited credit cards and stuff like that. I thought it would be interesting to see where those guys are now, now that the music industry has changed so much. The idea of an A&R man discovering an act and what discoveries are left and what does fame sort of mean anymore were some of the themes I wanted to talk about in this movie. What I liked about the conflict between Keira and Ruffalo in the film, which I hope people are seeing, is what does an old-school A&R man do with a young talent who genuinely doesn’t want the limelight?