‘Can a Song Save Your Life?’ (2013) Movie Review – Toronto Film Festival

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Can a Song Save Your Life? movie review
Mark Ruffalo and Keira Knightley in Can a Song Save Your Life?
Photo: The Weinstein Co.

It has been seven years since writer/director John Carney‘s breakout hit Once, which made stars out of Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová and ended up winning an Oscar for Best Original Song. The film was fantastic, not only for its music, but the delicate nature of its authentic and welcoming storytelling. There have been a couple of projects between then and now for Carney, but his latest feature, Can a Song Save Your Life? is, for all intents and purposes, his true follow-up effort to the 2006 success. Disappointingly, everything that made Once so great is absent from this film, which is nothing more than a soap opera-level melodrama.

Set in New York, the story follows Dan (Mark Ruffalo), a washed-up record producer, and his eventual professional relationship with Gretta (Keira Knightley), a singer-songwriter that has just broken things off with her boyfriend (Adam Levine) after he finds success in the music biz and chooses a rock star lifestyle over the relationship they’d built together, which included her writing some of his songs.

Dan and Gretta’s worlds come together at just the right time during an open night mic at a local bar as he walks in drunk and disheveled and she is coerced by a friend to take the stage. Moved by her music, he offers to produce a solo record for her, but considering he just lost his job, they’re going to have to improvise and take a guerrilla approach to getting an album together.

They decide to take Gretta’s music to the streets of New York, setting up in random spots all around the city and recording songs with a full band behind her. The idea is a little outrageous, but it’s inspiring in a world where music has become so overproduced everything sounds exactly the same. Where it runs into trouble is in the saccharine nature in which it’s told and the idea we won’t believe music is important to these people unless they bounce around the city at night sharing their playlists and referring to songs as “beautiful effervescent pearls”. That line nearly killed me.

Carney’s script is so overwritten nothing is left to be seen. The characters say absolutely everything that’s on their mind and refuse to stop speaking in stereotypical movie tropes. The film’s timeline is also a mess as the first half essentially only makes up the events of that first day, with flashbacks establishing their two stories, all of which leads back to the opening scene and Gretta taking the stage. This would have been a great way to tell the story, leaving the audience to respect the power of music in the hands of two true music lovers and decide whether or not they eventually got that album made. I believe the John Carney of 2006 would have made that film. However, Can a Song Save Your Life? devolves quickly and we’re suddenly bouncing around the city, one corny scene after another.

Of course, while Gretta has her relationship issues, Dan has his as well, including an ex-wife (Catherine Keener) and a 14-year-old daughter (True Grit‘s Hailee Steinfeld) whom he sees only once a week. Both Dan and Gretta’s issues, however, are entirely unnecessary and merely emotional crutches attempting to hold up the story. The film doesn’t need this garbage. It’s a movie about a shared love for real music, but it gets lost in over-expository monologues and relationship drama that only bogs down the drama of trying to get an album made that doesn’t rely on big budget studios and producers. Of course, considering the music in the film is about as over-produced as it comes it all begins to feel very hypocritical, but that’s the least of the film’s worries.

Ruffalo does what he can with a screenplay that does his character no favors. At the beginning of the film he heads into work with a large envelope filled with demo CDs. As a music exec he naturally wants to hear something worth producing so he starts tossing them into his CD player. “Come on, gimme something… Ugh, no, no, no… Gimme a hook, anything I can work with… What? Get out of my car!” and on, and on he goes. He works through the whole film like this, unwilling to shut up and just let the moment describe the mood rather than having to say every little thing on his mind.

I’ll give kudos to Knightley for singing all her own songs, but not a single one of them is memorable, unlike virtually every song in Once, which were like cherries on top of that great film. It is also a little embarrassing to watch Carney do everything he can to cut around Knightley’s hands as she most certainly wasn’t playing that guitar and makes me wonder why he felt this time around it was necessary to go with higher profile actors rather than unknown talents like his first film.

The best scene involves a visit to the home of one of the artists Dan originally signed and has clearly helped make a lot of money as they are searching for folks to help them make their album. Said artist is played by Cee-Lo, as Carney was apparently just mining the cast of the game show “The Voice”. The scene, however, is funny, earnest and not nearly as pandering as the rest of the film.

It’s a shame to see Carney make two films about music that are so polar opposite. It makes me wonder what happened in those seven years in-between. Can a Song Save Your Life? may go on to be a crowd-pleaser and make some money, but it will be forgotten in an instant, much like the over-produced music of today it chastises.