Sundance Film Festival: “Song One” hits a lot of familiar notes

songone

Even for a film that’s literally about the healing power of music, “Song One” is awfully hokey. The drama from first-time writer-director Kate Barker-Froyland boasts a great soundtrack, featuring original songs by Jenny Lewis and Johnathan Rice and cameos by Sharon Van Etten, Dan Deacon and the Felice Brothers. Music in some form or another informs almost every scene in the film.

But it’s the singer not the song, as they say, and the characters in “Song One” are thinly drawn, and the situation Barker-Froyland puts them in just too contrived.

Henry (Ben Rosenfield) is a New York street busker who obsesses over the music of a Damien Rice-like musician, James Forester (Johnny Flynn). When Henry is hit by a car and put in a coma, his estranged anthropologist sister Franny (Anne Hathaway) flies home from Morocco.

While poring over Henry’s notebook, Franny learns of her brother’s passion for Forester’s songs, and goes to see his show. After the show, Franny approaches James and tells him about her brother. James starts visiting Henry in the hospital, and James and Franny strike up a friendship that grows into something more. (Incredibly, James resists the opportunity to write a song called “Girlfriend’s Brother’s in a Coma.”

Barker-Froyland gets low-key performances out of the actors and uses handheld cameras, but all the realistic touches can’t disguise the fact that this is a mighty silly story built around a classic “Hollywood coma.” Also, the most interesting relationship in the film wouldn’t be between Franny and James, but James and Henry, the musician who’s made it and the musician-fan who’s struggling to emulate him. But of course, we don’t see that.

“Song One” works in those three-to-five-minute stretches when Flynn is playing a song, or the couple are going to see a band. But it’s when the music stops that “Song One” loses its spot.

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