TIFF 2013: Can a Song Save Your Life? (John Carney, 2013)

Can a Song Save Your Life?

USA, 2013 — Dir. John Carney

John Carney‘s Can a Song Save Your Life? offers more winsome (if tediously foul-mouthed) music-based uplift in the mold of the director’s overpraised Once, though glossier and with the dubious added bonus of Keira Knightley grimacing and gurning away in one of the lead roles. Knightley plays — or, in her usual manner, has a game go at playing — Greta, an English girl in New York who gets dumped by her musician boyfriend (Adam Levine, of Maroon 5, in a creditable film debut) and finds herself dragged along to an open mic night where she’s talent spotted by Dan (Mark Ruffalo) a down-on-his-luck music exec who hears potential in her fey folky warblings. The film follows the pair as they collaborate on an album, its tracks recorded live in different locations in the city.

Carney is good on music biz machinations and these aspects provide the more interesting elements of the picture. But Can A Song Save Your Life? is ultimately too transparent in its feel-good designs upon the audience and too clumpy in its plotting. It’s the kind of movie in which everything is on the surface, every emotional beat underlined and made obvious. Greta starts meddling in Dan’s personal life just so the pair can have a little spat but ultimately the movie is all about relationships getting repaired — lives being saved, indeed — by the power of song. That could work, were the featured tracks, written by Gregg Alexander, not such terminally bland affairs (just as they were in Once) — folk-influenced pop full of would-be poetic musings. And for all the blah blahing about artistic integrity that goes on here, the movie itself feels mighty inauthentic: when the characters are in a tight spot, for example, they simply call on a beneficent multi-millionaire hip-hop star (Cee-Lo Green) to help them out.

Catherine Keener and Hailie Steinfeld go to waste as Ruffalo’s estranged wife and kid, but Ruffalo himself brings some rumpled charisma to his role and James Corden (whose turn as Britain’s Got Talent winner Paul Potts in One Chance was also unveiled at this year’s TIFF) does some pleasantly relaxed funny-buddy schtick as Greta’s busker pal. The movie is undistinguished, and I found it resistible, but it probably pushes enough buttons to turn itself into a hit.

RATING 4 / 10