Terrence Malick’s career, as of late, has been extremely divisive. Despite being in the business since 1969, he’s only made nine features, the majority of which were produced in the last two decades. At his best, Malick is philosophical yet accessible, but at his worst he tends to turn into pretentiousness. Does Song to Song stand high against the likes of Badlands and Days of Heaven, or fall into the forgettable territory of Knight of Cups? Like most of Malick’s latest work, it’s highly debatable.
If you like beautiful cinematography, gorgeous actors and a sense of serenity in a wasteland, Song to Song is another phenomenal entry in Malick’s oeuvre. Emmanuel Lubezki (The Revenant, Gravity) brings his one-takes and floating cinematography, grounding it in the Austin soil. The scenes of characters just walking are captivating, with a sequence set to Del Shannon’s “Runaway” being a highlight of the film. Lubezki gives a certain elegance to the music scenes and fully immerses audiences in the emotional state of outdoor concerts. Song to Song balances the lifestyles of the rich and musically talented with a realistic, yet stylized look, which is helped by abundant cameos from stars such as Iggy Pop, Arcade Fire, Florence of Florence and the Machine fame, and Red Hot Chili Peppers. Lubezki has worked with Malick on all of his later films; the two of them perform amazingly well together. The characters seemingly float on air in their lives, never being fully of this world. With modestly beautiful locations, art design, score, and costumes, Song to Song stands out among the crowd. You won’t see anything like it this spring.
If you’re looking for a gripping narrative and emotional range to your stories, Song to Song is a bit shaky there. The dual love stories of the innocent waitress (Natalie Portman) and the hedonist (Michael Fassbender) against the rock and roll sweethearts (Ryan Gosling and Rooney Mara) is about as interesting as the opening act of a concert (unless you’re about to see The Rolling Stones open for Stevie Wonder). The only characters to get any sort of real development are not the central lovers, culminating in what feels like a five-minute stretch that has Michael Fassbender dissolve into a monologue about basically being the devil incarnate. It’s moments like the monologue that expose the real flaws of the narrative. The film is sensual, yet not salacious, teasing the audience with potentially interesting developments, yet remaining rather chaste in execution. However, as all Malick films are, it’s extremely inventive and should definitely be examined, at least for its mise-en-scène.
Ultimately, what to take away from Song to Song is something deeper than the film itself. It’s an examination on young love, symbolically tied to two couples who are intertwined by a passion for music. It’s going to be a critically conflicting film, like most of Malick’s work, so all we can do is suggest strapping in for the ride.