September 9, 2013



Less intimate but perhaps even more irresistible than his micro-indie smash Once, John Carney’s follow-up CAN A SONG SAVE YOUR LIFE? plays a similar tune with broader orchestrations.  The city this time is New York rather than Dublin, and the focus is again on two people enraptured by the possibilities of music. Greta (Keira Knightley) has come to the city as girlfriend and sometimes songwriter to Dave (Adam Levine), a singer who’s just about to hit it big.  Dan (Mark Ruffalo) has been at the top of the business as an A&R man turned co-record label head, but a combination of bad choices and taste that’s fallen behind the times has left him a shell of himself.  One night, Greta, who’s just semi-broken up with Dave, stands up reluctantly at an open mike night and sings a slight ballad, to the general disdain of the crowd.  Dan, though, hears the possibilities (in a magical sequence, he envisions the additional instruments that aren’t there), and whether or not he was literally preparing himself to jump in front of a subway train as he later claims, the performer and the song pump the blood back into his veins.

It’s possible to describe Can A Song as a not-quite-romance, since the relationship between Dan and Greta doesn’t go in that direction, but really it’s a full-blown love story between the two of them, her music and New York itself.  Greta has never had ambitions of stardom for herself, but Dan convinces her to let him represent her, and more–to let him produce a demo album to be recorded all over the city itself, on rooftops, in alleys and on Central Park rowboats.  Their universe expands to include her best mate (James Corden), Dan’s estranged teen daughter (Hailee Steinfeld), and the rest of the musicians and New Yorkers who join their band of crusading troubadors.  In a sense, Can A Song is an updated version of the old Judy Garland-Mickey Rooney “Hey, we’ve got a barn, let’s put on a show!” manifesto, except this time the barn is all of New York and the show is bittersweet and nuanced.

Although Carney has kept the semi-improvised aesthetic of Once, his own team this time includes executive producer Judd Apatow (who, for all his talent as a writer/director, may have his most important place in film history as a producer), and Can A Song is a more polished piece of storytelling, with an assortment of character arcs that pay off satisfyingly before the movie is over.  Some fans of Once will no doubt object to that, but the balance between simulated reality and Hollywood craft feels exquisitely balanced here–not unlike the way, in the film, Greta’s raw talent is burnished by Dan’s professional skill.

The cast is, without exception, exhilarating.  Knightley has never played a role like this before–much less sing on screen, which she does extensively and surprisingly well (those My Fair Lady rumors don’t seem quite so crazy now)–and she’s a revelation, funny and gritty and moving.  She’s helped by Ruffalo and Corden, both more experienced in improv, who have an expert sense of when to carry the ball and when to let their acting partners take over.  Ruffalo’s scenes with Catherine Keener, as his ex-wife, are particularly lovely, able to convey the complications of an 18-year marriage on the rocks in a few brief scenes, and Steinfeld is charming.  Adam Levine, in his first substantial acting role, more than holds his own with the talent around him, and Yasiin Bey (aka Mos Def) and Cee-Lo Green show up as industry types.

Can A Song Save Your Life? is a modern-day fairy tale, and its contrivances are marvelously effective. It’s not a conventional musical but one that, like Once, uses songs thrillingly to connect its characters to one another and all of them with the audience.  (The songs themselves are largely written by Gregg Alexander, although Carney himself and Once‘s Glen Hansard are among those who have made contributions.)  Beautifully shot by Yaron Orbach and smartly edited, the film is terrifically moving and entertaining.  It may not save your life, but it’ll rescue whatever day you’re having when you see it.


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."