January 23, 2014



Kate Barker-Froyland’s directing debut SONG ONE is so wispy and insubstantial that the bytes making up its digital images seem barely capable of adhering to a screen.  Clearly influenced by John Carney’s mini-musical Once, it makes Carney’s film look like an Andrew Lloyd-Webber spectacle by comparison.

Barker-Froyland also wrote the minimal script, which almost exhausts its resources once it’s established its set-up.  In Brooklyn, aspiring singer-songwriter Henry (Ben Rosenfield) is wearing his headphones while crossing the street and, hit by a cab (not the driver’s fault, we’re assured), he’s hospitalized in a coma.  His mother (Mary Steenburgen) calls Henry’s anthropologist grad student sister Franny (Anne Hathaway) back from Morocco, and once in town, Franny roams through Henry’s diaries and belongings, and sees that his favorite musician is dreamy Brit James Forester (Johnny Flynn), who happens to be performing in New York.  Franny goes to James’s show with a copy of Henry’s newest song, and kind-hearted James comes to visit Henry in the hospital.

After that, what happens is exactly what you’d think would happen; Franny and James are almost immediately basking in each other’s eyes and doing soulful things together that are first about trying to rouse Henry (recording sounds to play for him in his room, tracking down his favorite foods) and then about the connection the two of them are making, while light indie music songs play on the soundtrack.  Aside from the basic question of whether Henry will open his eyes, there’s no particular conflict in Song One–it’s just about pretty people being pretty.  (I would have killed for Henry’s Brooklyn neighbor, the Jenny Slate character from Obvious Child, to show up and make some mess.)  At a Sundance that’s featured plenty of sibling conflict (The Skeleton Twins, Happy Christmas), the relationship between Franny and Henry is paper-thin; the only backstory Barker-Froyland comes up with is that Franny disapproved when Henry quit college to pursue his music, and now she’s guilty because they hadn’t talked after that.

Song One is pleasant to watch, but instantly forgettable, and there’s so little going on that even at 86 minutes it feels overlong.  The last time Hathaway went the indie route, she challenged herself with the gritty, difficult Rachel Getting Married (her Rachel director Jonathan Demme is a producer here, as it Hathaway herself), but in Song One she’s so bland that she’s like a Photoshopped version of herself. Flynn is similarly more a presence than someone giving a real performance, perpetually mild and soft-focus.  The only time either of them come to life is when they share the screen with Steenburgen, who doesn’t have much to play either (she had a hot time in the Paris of the 1970s), yet manages to bring some humor and sense of emotional complication to the story.

Song One, like Once, is constructed to some extent around its songs, most of which are supposed to have been written by Henry or James, and like Song One itself they’re sweet but uninflected, just about all of them nice in exactly the same way.  Once was a fairy tale that at least existed in some kind of real world, where people struggled to earn money and there were genuine obstacles to romance; Song One is set in a dream-world where Franny has unlimited funds to buy antique gramophones for her brother and James is a singing star in a benign fantasy of the music business.

As a calling card for Barker-Froyland, Song One is fairly skillful, with cinematography by John Gulesarian and production design by Jade Healy that match the story’s prettiness, and she seems to have gotten what she wanted out of the actors.  The movie will likely make some viewers tear up.  On the whole, though, its lack of ambition and any but romance-novel take on character limit it sharply.  Too often, it feels like every Hallmark commercial for Valentine’s Day cards rolled into one.

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."