Sunday, 19 April 2015

Musical Inclinations

DVD Notes: “August Rush”


Jonathan Rhys Meyers and Freddie Highmore jam in Washington Square

In his review of Whiplash, Richard Brody writes, “Movies about musicians offer musical approximations that usually satisfy in inverse proportion to a viewer’s devotion to the actual music behind the story.” One might make the same comment just as aptly when discussing August Rush, except, while Whiplash was clearly about jazz musicians, it’s difficult to know what musical tradition August Rush has taken as its subject. We’re treated with the rarefied musings of the eponymous 11-year-old musical prodigy (Freddie Highmore) and his mentor, “Wizard” (Robin Williams), about how music is what surrounds us all – in the air, on the wind, in all living forms – and what connects everything, including all of us to everything else, even the stars and galaxies. One has only to “follow the music” – forgive me, “The Music” – to reach one’s fulfilment, the movie posits.

The New Yorker recently published a humourous article in which Ayn Rand (a fictional persona of the novelist) reviewed children’s movies. “An industrious woman neglects to charge for her housekeeping services and is rightly exploited for her naïveté,” she writes of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. “She dies without ever having sought her own happiness as the highest moral aim. I did not finish watching this movie, finding it impossible to sympathise with the main character.” She gave it Zero Stars. Sadly, Ms Rand was not around to provide her very straightforward acuity and pointed views on August Rush, but I think it would’ve been just the thing to cut through the drivel offered here.

Consider the heap of contrivances tacked together by the writing team as a plot. One night, in New York City, a young and very talented cellist, Lyla (Keri Russell) plays a Bach concerto with the New York Philharmonic. Simultaneously, in a venue and at an event slightly less distinguished, Lewis (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) plays a gig with his rock band. Lyla preternaturally picks up the wavelengths of Lewis’s performance, and completes her own to great acclaim, presumably playing in sympathy with Lewis. The two performances are spliced together in the film, working only to diminish both of them. The two then meet on the quiet rooftop of a house where a noisy party is being hosted, above Washington Square. On the Square, a lone musician is playing harmonica in the moonlight, and the two listen to it intently, and then sleep together. Lyla leaves in a rush the next morning, is berated by her overbearing father and manager (William Sadler), and gets taken away by him, never to see Lewis again. She finds out she’s pregnant, gets hit by a car, and when she wakes up, is told she’s lost her child, who was really given up for adoption by her father while she was unconscious.

We meet this child at the beginning of the film, eleven years later, in a children’s home, while the exposition is given in flashback. He hears The Music all around him, and spends his days listening to it in windswept fields of wheat, feeling the connection to the parents he’s never known. Through this anti-solipsist trance, he gets drawn by (tedious, we know) The Music to New York City. There he meets Arthur, a young street guitarist, and Arthur’s boss, Wizard. The child’s name is Evan Taylor, and he’s entranced by the auditory overload that is the streets of New York. He picks up a guitar for the first time and, with a self-devised action of slapping the strings instead of strumming, obtains sounds from the instrument that has any nearby listeners in raptures. Wizard is thrilled at the discovery, and takes him in as a new employee, a performing monkey, managed by Wizard, and whose earnings are conscientiously pocketed by Wizard as well. Evan is given a new, more glamourous stage name, August Rush.

August’s music is dull enough, but the real turn-off is the exasperating smugness with which he’s presented – as a pure young innocent, endowed with the greatest musical talent since Mozart – and the entirely annoying and sanctimonious manifesto August keeps repeating – that he needs to play his music as often and as publicly as possible, so that his parents, whoever and wherever they are, might hear it, and be brought back to him.

Through a few more machinations, August lands a place at Julliard, where he composes a single-movement orchestral work, hailed by his teachers as a work of mysterious and profound originality and expression. Much of it is lifted from the music we’ve heard before in the film – Lyla’s cello concerto, Van Morrison’s “Moondance”, and the film’s score – and is far from being a great, or even a good work of modern composition. The music is trite and banal, but received as the answer to a life’s struggles and losses. (SPOILER AHEAD) Though I wouldn’t deem it a spoiler, considering the way the rest of the movie has panned out, Lewis, who ludicrously has been hung-up on his one-night-stand Lyla for eleven years, finds her at the performance of “August’s Rhapsody” at the New York Philharmonic’s Concert in the Park, and Lyla, recently having found out that she has a son, finds him by following the sounds of his music (though, in reality, the sounds of music she’s performed and been listening to for years).

It would call for a special degree of surrender to the film’s implausibility and suspension of disbelief for anyone not to walk out of the movie disheartened or frustrated with the requirements the filmmakers have made of viewers. In some scenes, the capable actors help us, and Russell and Rhys Meyers manage particularly well not to let this film’s ridiculous conceits permeate their scenes (though Highmore fails somewhat in this regard). But the real problem here is the smugness and off-putting piety towards the film’s mistaken notions of the sanctity and potency of Music, however bland. Music is an abstract expression of ideas, or emotions, or scenes, or perhaps of something else, but it cannot be used as a sort of metaphysical GPS tracker or identifier of someone as spiritually or biologically akin to anyone, nor as a solution to the struggles of life.

In attempting to show us the glories of this art form, the filmmakers have instead presented a worldview which falls incredibly short of doing justice to music. Oscar Wilde, the brilliant writer and critic, told us that all art is perfectly useless (an irony not to be literalised), and it’s in that transcendental and extraordinary anti-utility that the wondrousness of music is to be found. By trying to attach not only a stated and practical use of music but also an explanation of its incorporeal powers (however poorly founded and articulated that explanation is), August Rush has failed both music and cinema.

Keri Russell desecrates Bach in "August Rush"

4 comments:

  1. I tried to watch the movie once but gave up a short while into it. After reading this I decided that maybe August's Rhapsody was worth a listen. I now fully understand why a second August's Rhapsody was not composed. The idea of the New York Philharmonic performing this at a serious concert without being paid truckloads to close their ears while doing so is ridiculous.

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    1. Ja, it's neither original nor exciting. The music is rather dull and conventional, and the idea of everyone receiving it as rapturously as they did is quite a silly one.

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  2. Great review, I agree with your thoughts on the film entirely. I really enjoy reading your reviews; please keep posting more regularly.

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