When It Comes to Movies About Music, Chemistry Matters

By  · Published on February 6th, 2015

The Film Arcade

At its core, music is emotion. Music captures an artist’s emotion when creating it and can conjure up a variety of emotions or memories for those listening to it. The great (and sometimes infuriating) thing about music is how everyone can interpret it differently. But when music is paired with an image it is done so to help further a specific emotion or connection between the audience and those on screen.

But what happens when those images do not live up to the emotion of the song?

Song One is a film about the power of music and how it can help connect (or reconnect) people. With music written by Jenny Lewis (of Rilo Kiley fame) and Jonathan Rice that is performed throughout the film by the talented Johnny Flynn, Song One seems like it would be a movie on par with last year’s Begin Again or the 2006’s Once. But Song One fails at capturing the emotion of its music because its leads lack the chemistry needed to sell not only their relationship, but also their musical connection.

The “meet cute” between Anne Hathaway’s Franny (a wanderlust driven PHD student) and Flynn’s James Forrester (a folk singer apprehensive about his current success) is anything but cute. Franny has recently returned to the states after finding out her brother Henry (Ben Rosenfield) has been hit by a cab and is in a coma. Henry is an aspiring musician (and huge fan of James) so Franny goes to one of James’ shows and ends up giving James a CD of one of Henry’s songs. Meeting over the fact that one’s brother is in a coma is a rough way to start any relationship, but Hathaway and Flynn never seem to get past this awkward first meeting feeling, forever hindering the feeling that their relationship will truly blossom into something more.

It is clear Franny goes to James’ show as a way to try and figure out how to bring her brother back. It is an irrational idea, but it is one driven by Henry’s journal which details all the places around New York he likes to go to listen to music and gives Song One the feeling of a musical scavenger hunt. We barely get to know Henry outside of hearing him sing “Marble Song” in the subway at the start of the film and the idea of learning more about him through the eyes of two other characters is compelling.

Unfortunately Hathaway and Flynn are never able to fully run with this idea. Franny is dealing with a difficult situation and James (as we later find out) is struggling with a bout of writer’s block that has him questioning whether he is worth his hype, but Song One proposes the idea that music can help you overcome any obstacle. Franny and James run around the city collecting old keyboards and gramophones with the hope that they will help Henry wake up, but it is hard to believe any music will help the unconscious Henry when the music driving the fully awake and alive Franny and James can barely create a palpable connection between them.

The two sing together on the song “Afraid of Heights,” which is supposed to be a silly song they make up on the spot, but it sounds like they are reading off cue cards instead of riffing off one another. One of the best scenes in Once is when Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová begin playing the song “Falling Slowly” together in a music shop and the scene works because of the chemistry between them literally flies off the screen and turned the song into an iconic part of the film. When it comes to musically driven films like these, the chemistry between the leads is all the more important because that is what helps drive the music and gives it an even bigger, more necessary emotional impact.

And that chemistry does not always need to be of the romantic variety. Keira Knightley’s Gretta and Mark Ruffalo’s Dan have fantastic chemistry together in Begin Again and their connection is one of the reasons the film (and it’s music) works so well together, even though the character’s never become romantically involved. Gretta and Dan have a true musical connection that definitely brings them together, but also teaches them about their own lives and relationships outside of each other. The music they create works so well because of the chemistry between Knightley and Ruffalo which makes you truly believe in the music they are creating and are surrounded by. Franny and James are surrounded by equally great music (see: “In April” and “Big Black Cadillac”), but the fact that they can never get past their initial awkwardness inevitably deflates any scene featuring that music.

Natural and believable chemistry is something any film with two leads (whether they are romantically involved or not) aims to have, but chemistry in films where music is considered another character is even more important. You can hear a beautiful song that fits a scene perfectly, but if the characters in the scene do not feel like they are reflecting the song’s emotion, the music will always end up feeling like its hit a wrong note.