If beloved Austinite Terrence Malick’s “Song to Song,” which opened South by Southwest on Friday, is a meditation on the shallow, flash-over-substance, Los Angeles-ization of Austin, then it is a bullseye.
If it is a troll of contemporary Austin, if the idea is to mock a city overrun with poseurs-come-lately who dream of being artists without, you know, ever working at their craft, then “Song to Song” is one of the meanest movies ever lensed.
If it is a movie about gorgeous people wandering around hilariously empty Austin landscapes, photographed perfectly, touching each other, looking meaningfully at each other, then, sure. And, hey: Nothing wrong with that.
“Song to Song,” starring Ryan Gosling, Michael Fassbender and Rooney Mara, is, according to the blurb on the SXSW website, “a modern love story set against the Austin, Texas, music scene.”
This is essentially correct. “Song to Song” is a love story. It is in Austin, (though the city is never named). There are shots of bands playing and guitars being strummed. OK so far.
Here is the rest of the description: “two entangled couples — struggling songwriters Faye and BV, and music mogul Cook and the waitress whom he ensnares — chase success through a rock ‘n’ roll landscape of seduction and betrayal.”
This is where problems start.
It is a movie about the real world of popular music the way “Star Wars” is a samurai flick or a Western — a thematic and visual influence, perhaps, but that’s about it.
And it is a movie about Austin the way “Star Wars” is about Tunisia — it was shot there, but in terms of the flavor of the place, it might as well have been a matte painting.
Gosling is BV, one of these alleged songwriters. Songwriting is an activity we see him engage in, somewhat vaguely, once.
The rest of the time, we see him wander around town, wander around Fun Fun Fun, hang out backstage with the Chili Peppers, looking a lot more like an actor than a musician.
He becomes involved with Faye (Mara), who works on her music even less than BV. Faye’s father has a strong Texas accent, implying that Mara is a native, which scans about as well as Audrey Hepburn playing a rodeo clown.
We see Faye playing guitar on stage at Fun Fun Fun, but we have no other context for what she does or whom she does it with — she, too, looks like an actor holding a guitar.
No wonder these two are struggling. They might as well be plumbers or lawyers or farmers for all of the songwriting they do.
Cook (Fassbender, who plays toxic masculinity better than anyone right now) is the sleazy record producer, which is definitely a type we have never seen before. He doesn’t ever seem to do any producing, outside of supervising (vaguely yelling at?) a string section in one scene and sort of admonishing BV in another. (There is no reason you, gentle reader, should remember “Laurel Canyon,” the 2002 bomb starring Frances McDormand as a record producer, but trust me, she was light-years more credible as someone who worked in pop music than Cook.)
Cook has a gorgeous house in Austin, one he says he’s lived in for “about two weeks,” which seems right on the money if, again, this is about terrible people who come to Austin seeking an authenticity they cannot name.
But Cook shouldn’t get too comfortable because he doesn’t really seem to know about the financial side of the music business either.
“I know you do the live music thing,” Cook says to BV, which is a series of words no record producer in history has ever actually said in that order to a songwriter/performer. “We should make a record together,” Cook says. “Don’t you want to make some money?”
Cook, I don’t know if you have been paying attention to the music business for the past 15 or so years, but making a record is an awfully hard way to make some money of late.
Anyway, Faye is sleeping with Cook, because of course she is. (This bit seems particularly disingenuous given the fiercely independent, OG punk rock icon Patti Smith’s lovely cameo.)
BV and Faye break up after BV finds out she has been sleeping with Cook. BV takes up with the older Amanda (Cate Blanchett). BV’s mother does not approve.
BV is also the sort who runs into an ex and asks, “What didn’t I know?” The ex responds, “How to feel.” I don’t know, lady; feeling seems to be the only thing these people do all day.
Cook, a flagrant womanizer, takes up with and marries Rhonda (Natalie Portman), a woman who says she has to waitress because she couldn’t find work as a teacher (!). In fact, another character in the film says she can’t find work as a teacher either — so she is a prostitute. There seems to be a bumper crop of teachers in Malick’s Austin.
Then again, given that every Austin location outside of the music festivals is so devoid of people that it looks like a neutron bomb hit it, maybe there aren’t enough children to sustain a mess of teachers. Our heroes spend most of the time wandering around a comically underpopulated Austin, voice-overs letting us know their thoughts, bits of dialogue advancing what little plot there is.
Standing on the balcony of (an otherwise completely empty) Mohawk, BV accuses Cook is stealing the copyrights to BV’s songs. To which a viewer must ask, “What songs?” There is zero evidence on screen that these folks write anything, ever.
Indeed, it is to Malick’s credit that “Song to Song,” stunning-looking and meditative as it is, made me think about the very limitations of film as a medium. “Writing about music is like dancing about architecture” some wisenheimer once said, and I’ve always thought this was nonsense, not the least of which because I would love to see a dance about architecture.
But watching “Song to Song” made me wonder about Walter Pater’s maxim: “All art aspires to the condition of music.” Which is to say all other art falls far, far behind; all other art is only ever playing catch-up to what makes music, music. So one wonders about the extent to which any medium can capture music’s power, its resonance, the obsessive centrality it can take in one’s life. No form seems up to it: Novels about music are mostly awful; we know TV struggles (witness “Vinyl” and even “Empire,” which once did a decent job but is more about crime than studio time).
No wonder music documentaries are so popular, are so their own category. At least in music docs, there is an acknowledgment that they will only get so far at capturing the real-life felt experience of the concert, the studio, the rehearsal room, the men and women at a piano or with guitars or a computer, trying the find the proverbial bottled-lightning. There’s none of that in “Song to Song.”
But if you love looking at Fassbender and Gosling, Mara and Portman, empty clubs and houses and the Long Center and slow-motion moshing without what anyone is moshing to, then go for it.
Just don’t expect music.