Perhaps the world we live in is like background music.
Sometimes music plays in a space less to be enjoyed and more to fill the silence. It keeps company, makes the room feel less cold, less empty, and helps fill in those moments where silence would just underline how awkward we all are. The music isn’t actually being enjoyed – sung along with, danced to, discussed – so much as it’s just…”there”.
Not like when you press play on a song you love, feel it consume you and actually give yourself over to it.
Perhaps the world is like that. Sometimes, despite life and the environment presenting us with harmony, rhythm, and pure beauty…we don’t actually listen, move along, sing along. Pity that, as some songs – and some parts of life – really should be appreciated fully.
SONG TO SONG is about Cook, Faye, and BV (Michael Fassbender, Rooney Mara, and Ryan Gosling). BV and Faye are Texas musicians, both of whom are offered contracts and projects by Cook, a producer.
The three also form a love triangle of sorts: BV and Faye share a warm, gooey connection. Cook and Faye are about sexual infatuation…mostly him being infatuated with her.
Still, they go from place to place, show to show. Sometimes in pairs, sometimes as a trio. Life is a blur of wine, women, and song…eventually leading to personal and professional falling outs.
For Cook, though, this isn’t that big a deal, since he crosses paths with Rhonda (Natalie Portman). He goes to a diner and makes a hard pass at the waitress (because, of course)…and quickly smooth-talks her into his life, marrying her within short order.
Their paths continue to diverge and intersect, their successes and failures continually intertwined.
Like most of Terrence Malick’s recent films, SONG TO SONG is truly “about” what the audience brings to it.
The idea in life is that if you strike it big, life is an endless string of luxuries. Better food, more wine, bigger spaces, and spectacular views. That’s what we’re all working for, isn’t it? To live in the houses they feature in magazines, and get access to the VIP area. The irony is, more than half the people who have reached that plateau couldn’t possibly look more bored to be there. They stand several feet away as rock gods perform, and they talk over the set. They sip expensive booze, and never finish a glass.
Why is this? How does luxury become so omnipresent that one stops taking any true joy in it?
Perhaps it’s because spaces and faces associated with luxury seem so cold; so perfect. Looking around the places and people of SONG TO SONG, there’s often a feeling of artifice. Everyone stands and moves as if they believe the whole room is watching them. They cannot act natural or be natural because they have lost sense of what that is. It goes even further – making them want but then not sure what to do with that which they get. Watching Cook lust after his women, we wonder if he wants them or just wants them.
Is he thinking about what it would be to get them into bed, or what it would be like to wake up with them the next morning?
When Faye and BV hang out, they’re often near walls that are unfinished…playing songs they don’t know the chords to…in places that feel like they’re on the way to someplace else. All of it though comes with great joy, great warmth. It feels authentic, even if they are not always their most authentic selves.
SONG TO SONG is especially interested in body language. Whatever bullshit we choose to spew in the name of attraction or explanation, we cannot always keep control of our physical tells. So while Cook and BV might both be prone to moments of goofiness, we get the feeling that the former does it as a way of distracting from his vacant personality, while the latter does it as a way of expressing his love of life. Cook thinks he’s acting funny; BV just acts without thinking.
Not to get cliche, but it’s like that old saying about dancing like no one’s watching. Cook dances like everyone is watching and he wants them to come dance with him. BV might think everyone’s watching, but he doesn’t give a shit. That begs the question, which version are we? Are we Cook, BV, or are we perhaps Faye who can twirl and bop about her room when just the right song comes on?
The same way different songs put us in different moods, different people bring out different sides of us. Some ground us, some spoil us. Sometimes the best parts of ourselves become motivated by kindred spirits. Sometimes, the tune can burrow into our subconscious until we become someone altogether different…someone we don’t recognize. It goes beyond dressing differently and driving better cars. Our very posture can change depending on who’s most affecting us; our whole world view.
What should we make of this? Should we even think about it at all, or would awareness of this awareness make us too self aware.
These are the sorts of questions this film wants us to ponder while we watch couples fawn, birds take flight, beautiful strangers dance, and water trickle past.
Coming away from SONG TO SONG, the world feels like a blur. The chest burns with feelings, the brain works through ideas, and the gut turns in knots with feelings of repulsion. From moment to moment one changes ones mind over whether this is a good film, a bad film, or something in-between. This is a rare experience at the cinema. Usually the story moves from A-to-B-to-C, and what we’re meant to think and feel is spelled out for us. Life’s not like that. Some days we are in love, some days confused, some days seething with anger. It’s messy, imperfect, unpredictable, and chaotic…much like this film.
Life isn’t a playlist; it’s shuffle-all.