Sydney Film Festival Review: Song to Song (USA, 2017) is a soulless endurance test with no plot or point

A song is as song except when it’s a Terrence Malick film. The famous director’s latest experimental offering is an absolute waste in that it is all show and no substance. It weaves together cameos from famous A-list creatives and a cast of Hollywood’s finest actors and then it does nothing. Absolutely nothing. For 129 minutes. And not even in that funny Seinfeld brand of nothingness, because at least that sitcom was actually something.

This film begins with a girl named Faye (Rooney Mara) who sounds a tad depressed. Or it could just be that she’s aimless. She is seeking a “free” existence where she can go from experiencing one song to the next and from lover to lover. From here, we see various couples coming together in multiple love triangles (or is that a pyramid?) and also breaking up. This happens in parallel to some vague and breathy voiceovers delivered by various actors and includes such bombshells as: “Any experience is better than no experience” and “I played with the flame of life”. This is what it sounds like when writers die.

Faye is an aspiring musician who actually doesn’t play much music. She was also the one-time receptionist of a music mogul named Cook (Michael Fassbender). The two are romantically involved until Faye meets a singer-songwriter named BV (Ryan Gosling). It has to be said that Messer Gosling is his usual handsome self here and is charming and playful in almost every scene that he is in. It is also obvious that the actors are often simply improvising these little throwaway moments in order to forge connections between these gorgeous but hollow characters.

Eventually BV and Faye break-up and new lovers enter and exit the fold. These new partners include: Natalie Portman, Cate Blanchett and Bérénice Marlohe. Along the way there are also cameos from the following famous musicians: Iggy Pop, Flea, Anthony Kiedis, John Lydon and Patti Smith. The latter artist is given the most air-time, although this proves to be not much in the general scheme of things. Smith’s contributions are ultimately poignant and emotional but audiences would find just as much of that kind of stuff in her books, music or her concerts. Just saying.

Song to Song is set in Austin’s vibrant music scene (at least according to the notes) but there is little to distinguish this place from any other creative environment or musical scene around the world. The soundtrack to this film is noticeably scant save for a handful of songs including Del Shannon’s “Runaway”. The characters and their development is equally barren in detail and context. For a film that’s supposed to be a kind of character study there is so little time devoted to shaping the characters’ pasts and getting a sense of who they actually are. You’re not given any reason to emotionally invest in the proceedings and the whole exercise seems like a long and protracted one in watching privileged cardboard cut-outs lolling about in their riches.

Song to Song is a film that occasionally has some beautiful shots and dreamy close-ups courtesy of cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki. It also features a cast of great-looking people. But there is simply no plot or point to it all. If Malick was hoping to make something freewheeling and existential then part of this is lost in the process because these characters are like half-sketched pictures that are utterly forgettable and completely incapable of anything beyond the most superficial navel-gazing.

The latest Terrence Malick film is a long and needlessly protracted affair. You get the sense that so much of it is one note and that it is trying too hard to be stylish, edgy and experimental. The result is just like a record player belting out the same music ad nauseam. This film ultimately had so much potential and could have been a fine, wistful look at modern love, but in the end it is just a soulless, endurance test.

Review Score: TWO STARS (OUT OF FIVE)

Song to Song screened at Sydney Film Festival, where it was reviewed.