John Carney’s Can a Song Save Your Life? answers its own (inescapably clunky-sounding) titular question within its first twenty minutes, but it’s hard to tell if that salvation is ultimately sustainable. After all, most songs only last a few minutes, and what happens when the music stops?
Burnt out music executive Dan (Mark Ruffalo) has a thing for long shots, and while that may have worked for him in his early days, he hasn’t had much luck when it comes to finding bankable new talent for a number of years. (Oh, and his personal life is also in shambles, because of course it is.) Stuck in a low-rent apartment, estranged from his rock writer wife (Catherine Keener, who can’t quite reach her normal charm levels here, mainly because half of her face is bizarrely hidden behind her hair) and his just-rebellious-enough teen daughter (Hailee Steinfeld, who should have gotten more screen time here), and running on fumes career-wise, Dan is at rock bottom. So it’s a pretty nifty stroke of luck that he just so happens to walk into a local bar running an open mic night in order to kill time before actually killing himself, and it’s also pretty cool that Greta (Keira Knightley) is there (reluctantly) singing and yes, it’s also totally awesome that her song actually refers to someone throwing themselves in front of a subway.
If you can get past the silly plot contrivances and relatively thin script, Can a Song Save Your Life? just might stand a chance of charming you. Think of it as a fairy tale, set to very lovely music and with a very sweet casting propelling it.
The film’s first act fills in some necessary backstory for both Dan and the somewhat sullen Greta. While Dan has recently been ousted from the record label he helped create (no, very recently, like, earlier that day), Greta has also been forcefully excised from a partnership. Greta came to New York City with her rising star boyfriend Dave (Adam Levine), a singer whose fame level exploded after he penned a series of songs for an apparently popular film and who promptly dropped the songwriter brains of the operation (that would be Greta) because, well, he just sort of became an asshole. Greta is hours away from heading back across the pond when her utterly adorable best pal Steve (James Corden) pulls her up on stage – and right in front of a very drunk Dan.
Eventually agreeable to Dan’s pleas to manage her, Greta and her new producer/manager/agent/whatever hatch a plan to record an entire album all around the city, a bold idea that they hope will pay off big time. The film is Carney’s first musical outing since his 2006 smash hit, Once, and while Can a Song Save Your Life? is wholly unable to match the emotional impact the previous film, it does manage to retain the same love and respect for the power of music. As Greta, Dan, and their hodgepodge band make their way through the city, Carney unspools a lovingly made series of recording session sequences that exhibit a lively, infectious, and particularly charming energy. It’s nearly impossible not to smile as the group makes merry (and makes music), and it’s all sweet enough to temporarily obscure the absurdity of most of the situations at hand.
Knightley and Ruffalo have a scruffy sort of chemistry with each other, one made even better in retrospect once Carney’s film ends with a very firm decision on how their burgeoning affections for each other ultimately play out. Knightley is light and effervescent, and even with a snarky attitude and a cigarette permanently wagging out of his mouth, Ruffalo’s Dan is still obviously a sweetheart. Corden is particularly amusing as Greta’s big-hearted best pal, and Steinfeld has some fun in the film’s second half.
Embarrassingly cast as Greta’s bastard of an ex-boyfriend, Adam Levine seems to have been added into the production’s fold simply for his musical chops, because his acting ability is nothing short of dismal. Carney does, however, have some fun when it comes to conveying Dave’s steady descent into sellout douchebag, though none of it is thanks to Levine’s performance. Instead, Carney kits his rock star out with a suddenly acquired hipster mustache, then an overly hip knit hat (which Knightley adorably balks at), and finally a full and bushy beard. His dalliance with a record label employee is just as obvious as his poor accessories, but damn if this stuff isn’t funny.
It’s highly unlikely that Can a Song Save Your Life? will actually save anyone from anything, but it’s perfectly orchestrated to charm plenty of people, thanks to infectiously good tunes and a pair of consistently good stars. While it may not be worth singing about, you’ll still walk out humming.
The Upside: A relentlessly charming and sweet tone make is a true crowd-pleaser, a (predictably) wonderful soundtrack, and reliably solid performances from Knightley and Ruffalo.
The Downside: A thin script and strangely clipped narrative flow can distract from all the happy sweetness singing its way across the screen.
On the Side: Scarlett Johansson was originally cast as Greta.