Review: Keira Knightley and Mark Ruffalo are luminous in the beautiful ‘Can A Song Save Your Life’?

TORONTO – One of the things I love about music is the way it can act like a sort of time machine, transporting you back to the moment you first heard it or a particular performance you saw, and more than that, it can remind you of the person you were at that moment. I hear certain songs, and the world around me melts away and I find myself feeling and remembering and I can’t think of anything else that does it quite the same way.

In 2001, I made a last minute trip to Sundance with Kevin Biegel, another of the writers for Ain’t It Cool. We didn’t plan it. We had no idea what we were doing. It was the first time at a major film festival for either of us. And for the most part, we just sat in the press screening rooms watching whatever played, not sure what to expect. At the end of one of those days, already packed with great movies like “Chain Camera” and “Dogtown & Z-Boys,” we saw the first screening of “Hedwig And The Angry Inch,” and when it got to the song “Origin Of Love” in the middle of the film, I was transported. It seemed to me to be the perfect explanation of what it is we look for in this world in other people, inclusive of everyone, optimistic but heartbroken, and by the time the song was over, it was one of my favorite songs of all time.

In 2006, I didn’t make it to any of the festivals where “Once” played, so by the time I saw it, it was on a “For Your Consideration” screener DVD. I was on vacation with my wife and our one-year-old son Toshi, and as they slept one night, I watched the movie on my laptop, headphones on, and those songs punched a hole in me, one right after another. The next night, my wife and I watched it together, sharing the headphones, and it obviously affected her just as strongly. That soundtrack felt like something that had been sent to me specifically, and I think that’s probably what many people felt when they heard it. There was something intimate and direct about that music that made people feel protective about the film as a whole, and a few of the tracks have had a permanent home on my iPod ever since.

Those are just two examples of songs that worked their way inside me as soon as I heard them, but I could list dozens. Hundreds, most likely. I hold my music closer than the films I love because it works on me differently. With film, there’s a part of me that is always pulling apart the magic trick even as it happens because I can’t help myself. That’s just who I am as a film fan. With music, I am content to let these little three-minute slices of raw emotion work on me without trying to analyze why. Anything I want to feel… joy, pain, heartbreak, hope… I can call up the right song at the right time, like Phillip K. Dick’s mood organ, and I can slam that needle right into my heart and get the same rush every single time.

It should not come as any surprise that John Carney, who wrote and directed “Once,” has made another great film that focuses on songwriters and the way their lives influence their work, and I love that it doesn’t feel like he’s just trying to reproduce that movie’s charms. This is a “bigger” film, in the sense that it stars people you’ll recognize from big mainstream blockbuster films, but it has just as pure and open a heart as “Once,” and as I walked out of the Princess Of Wales theater tonight, I had that same feeling, that sudden belief that the answer to the question posed by the film’s title, “Can A Song Save Your Life?”, is a resounding yes.

The film opens in a small club in New York. James Corden is onstage, finishing a song, and he takes the mic to tell everyone that he has a friend in the audience and he wants her to come onstage and sing a song. Greta (Keira Knightley) really doesn’t want to do it, but he pushes her, and she ends up walking up and playing a lovely, simple song about feeling so low that you want to step out in front of a train, taking that one step you can never take back. There’s almost no response when she finishes, but the camera pushes in on one person, Dan (Mark Ruffalo), standing there in the middle of the club, totally flattened by what he just heard.

For the first act of the movie, Carney flashes back to show us how Greta and Dan both ended up in the club at that particular moment. Dan is an acclaimed producer and A&R guy who has been on a cold streak for several years, and he seems to be locked into this downward spiral. He has a daughter named Violet (Hailee Steinfeld) who he rarely sees, and an ex-wife (Catherine Keener) who he still misses, and he can’t seem to pick himself up anymore. Greta came to America with her boyfriend Dave (Adam Levine), who is just starting to emerge as a star in his own right, and he pulls the ultimate musician cliche, cheating on her as soon as the opportunity presents itself. She ends up heartbroken, turning to her old friend, played by Corden, ready to leave the States and go home.

That moment in the club changes everything for the two of them. Dan becomes convinced he’s found something worth fighting for again, an artist who he can help become the best possible version of themselves, and Greta starts to believe that she can have her own life, one that’s not defined by Dave or anyone else. Over the next few months, the two of them collaborate on a very special project, and the majority of the film deals with that process, the way a piece of art comes together, the feelings and ideas that go into it, the way it’s shaped by where you are and who you are, and Carney seems to get it all right.

Ruffalo starts the movie in a pretty rough place, and he doesn’t try to pretty it up. He’s charming in a ramshackle borderline homeless sort of way, but he’s a mess. He can’t even dress it up for other people. He just broadcasts “I AM BROKEN” with everything he does, and it’s starting to wear on the people in his life. The way he gradually reveals the guy who Dan used to be, the guy he could be again, is lovely and real. And the film is smart enough not to try to wedge in a romance between the two of them. Dan knows that this is a smart, beautiful girl who he is working with, but he’s drawn to her because he genuinely believes that her art deserves to be heard, that it can reach other people the way it reached him.

This may be the most winning performance I’ve seen Keira Knightley give. I run hot and cold on her depending on the role. The last film I saw her in at Toronto was “Anna Karenina,” which I liked. The year before that was “A Dangerous Method,” which I really, really, really did not like. But in this film, she’s so warm and funny and unafraid to wear her emotions on her sleeve… and most of all, she can sing. She performs several songs in the movie, and she’s lovely. She seems to come alive in those songs in a way I’ve never seen from her before. The music they record together is music I genuinely want to buy. It’s really risky to build an entire movie around the creation of a work of art, because you can’t just tell the audience, “THIS IS GOOD ART.” They have to feel it, or the film doesn’t work, and the songs here are smart and spare and emotionally direct, and watching them come together, it’s hard not to invest in them by the end.

Adam Levine could easily be playing a cartoon douchebag with the role here, but the film avoids making things that easy. He has one song near the end of the film where we see past all the trappings of stardom, where he lays his heart out there, and it works completely. When someone sings like that, there’s no filter between them and the audience, especially when it’s a song that is so sincere. Catherine Keener doesn’t have a ton of screen time, but she manages to turn Dan’s ex-wife into something more than an easy stereotype as well. In general, it seems like the movie is often simple, but never easy, and that’s a hard trick to pull off.

It makes fantastic use of New York City, and I’ll let you see the movie to see exactly what that means. Yaron Orbach has shot a number of films I’ve enjoyed, but his work here is special. There’s a spontaneous feeling to it, like we’re just barely capturing these events, and that energy feeds into the music, into the performances, even into the audience reaction. The supporting cast all manage to make an impression, even in brief appearances. Cee-Lo Green and Mos Def both fit their parts perfectly, and the rest of Greta’s band seems perfectly chosen. Steinfeld is at that moment in life where she’s somewhere between girl and woman, and Violet desperately needs her father to be a good man again, someone she can reach out to as she faces her own problems, and their relationship is etched beautifully.

In my own personal life right now, I am, to put it kindly, a goddamn catastrophe. I feel like a walking wound most of the time, and I recognized something in the way Dan reacts to the world at the start of the film. Maybe that’s why I found it so cathartic to watch him re-engage with art in a way that nurtures him back to health and happiness. I have a feeling many people will respond not only because of what’s onscreen, but because of whatever they’re feeling and going through. It’s the sort of movie that I feel protective of right away, because it’s delicate. It’s not trying to be a giant megablockbuster that opens on 3000 screens. It is heartfelt and deeply human, and it means every word it says. For the first time this week, I don’t feel like I just got hit by a truck. I’m sure that will settle back in, and it won’t go away quickly, but this is why so much of my life has been devoted to art. There is nothing I’ve ever taken from a bottle or a pipe or a pill that even begins to deliver the rush and the satisfaction of a great piece of art. And tonight, when I head back out onto the streets of Toronto, my iPod fully loaded, my headphones on, I’ll let all of my favorite songs work on me anew, and I’ll keep this feeling going as long as I can. Songs and films save my life every day, and I suspect John Carney’s latest will be embraced by audiences everywhere who feel the same way.

“Can A Song Save Your Life?” does not have a distributor yet. I fully expect that situation to change by sometime tomorrow morning.