It’s common Hollywood practice to follow an Oscar win with a trip to big budget land, where the paychecks, the trailers and the impact on the culture are potentially huge. So Sandra Bullock did Gravity right after Blind Side, and Anne Hathaway did Interstellar not long after picking up an Oscar for Les Misérables.
But Hathaway tried something altogether more modest and intimate in between paydays. Song One is a low-budget New York romance set against the backdrop of the city’s small-clubs/singer-songwriters scene.
Hathaway stars as Franny, an anthropologist whose estranged brother Henry (Ben Rosenfield) has become obsessed with songwriting, filling notebooks with tunes, performing them as a guitar-playing busker. But a car accident leaves Henry in a coma, and a guilt-ridden Franny comes home to an irate, self-involved writer-mom (Mary Steenburgen) and a brother who won’t wake up.
The novelty in writer-director Kate Barker-Froyland’s debut feature is Franny’s way of coping with this tragedy. A scientist in training, she immerses herself in Henry’s notebooks, listens to the mix tapes he had been sending her and, traipsing through Brooklyn’s busker underground, discovers Henry’s world.
Henry’s unconventional songs are Franny’s soundtrack as she visits Henry’s haunts. She starts making natural sound recordings, hoping for audio cues that will wake her sibling up. She’s trying to help.
It’s on this odyssey that she meets Henry’s absolute favorite artist, a British singer-songwriter of onetime repute named James Forester (played by British singer-songwriter Johnny Flynn).
Hathaway and Flynn have minimal chemistry, but she makes Franny beguiling enough to persuade the near-has-been James to visit the comatose Henry. That means he’ll be close to Franny, and that sets us up for a little romance.
Hathaway sets off most of her sparks in her scenes with the great Steenburgen, whose character’s nagging doesn’t mask her own guilt at what has happened to her son. “You came out of my womb having all the answers!” mom bellows. But Franny gives as good as she gets.
The magical thing that Hathaway accomplishes here is getting this film made and this look at the New York music scene out there. Barker-Froyland’s script makes knowing observations about “stardom” in the age of pirated downloads, when most musicians have to make most of their money off live performances, and “fandom” in the age of selfies.
Tunes by everyone from Nina Simone to America—whose “I Need You,” Hathaway sings—turn up on the soundtrack, with Jenny Lewis of Rilo Kiley providing much of the music Flynn’s James Forester sings in the film. Sharon Van Etten, The Felice Brothers and Cass Dillon are among those seen in various indie music clubs.
It never rises to the level of say, a Nick and Nora’s Infinite Playlist, a romantic comedy that wandered through a different corner of New York music subculture.
But Hathaway and a legion of musicians make this musical time capsule a pleasant enough time-killer, a film that seems to get what it is that turns people who play as a hobby into obsessed creatives looking to start a long-shot career with Song One.
Song One (PG-13): ★★✩✩✩