I have sympathy for the old woman in front of me who whispered to her friend, “I love going into a movie knowing nothing about it.” The film was “Song to Song,” a collage of fictional moments captured at the Austin City Limits Festival a number of years back. The director and writer, Terrence Malick (“Knight of Cups”), has found a creative niche, making impressionist films, eschewing traditional notions of plot and structure. Things happen in his movies, to be sure, but that’s not really the point. Characters will fight and it’s the fighting itself that’s important to Malick, not the reason why.
Malick is no filmmaker for the masses. The woman in front of me complained once the credits rolled that she didn’t know any of the characters’ names. A fair criticism, to be sure, is one of needless obscurity, but do character names really matter? Perhaps, perhaps not, but it’s up to the viewer. Malick’s not going to help you out.
“Song to Song,” though, is superior to Malick’s last two narrative efforts. 2012’s “To the Wonder” was absurdly beautiful and 2015’s “Knight of Cups” was intoxicating to a fault, but neither really presented a discernable story. That’s not to say “Song to Song” is any Rosetta’s Stone for Malick’s mind, but 40 or 50 percent comprehensibility is fairly decent.
The plot starts simply: In the Austin-based indie music world, a love triangle develops between artists Faye (Rooney Mara, “Lion”), BV (Ryan Gosling, “La La Land”) and mogul Cook (Michael Fassbender, “Steve Jobs”). BV and Cook become close friends as they develop a creative partnership, but have a falling out over both Cook’s romantic entanglements with Faye and his financial greed. Soon, Rhonda (Natalie Portman, “Jackie”), a local waitress, and Swedish indie pop artist Lykke Li presumably playing herself (or, coincidentally, another musician named Lykke) enter the frame, each tied up with Cook. Rhonda’s romance is one of enchantment with Cook’s luxurious homes and lifestyle. Meanwhile, BV spends some time with Amanda (a relatively sedate Cate Blanchett, “Carol”) while Faye hits it off with French émigré Zoey (Bérénice Marlohe, “5 to 7”).
There’s also Malick’s hallmark voiceover. Since 1973’s “Badlands,” his debut film, Malick’s characters have used voiceover more than dialogue to express their thoughts. It’s a pure form of expression, but it can get tired very quickly. In every film since his 1998 return, each voice over feels as though it could be used in a completely different film and still have the same effect. It’s excellent for creating a style, but not for creating discreet works of meaningful art. Voiceover is not inherently bad; it can too often be a crutch for lazy screenwriters, but Malick takes the opposite approach yet still ends up with a similar result.
The specifics aren’t terribly important (and they better not be – keeping up is quite confusing, given the film’s non-linear structure). But when Malick lets sparks fly, it’s a sight to be seen. Each scene feels completely natural, with Gosling and Fassbender and Mara moving around a sweeping camera as it explores the natural and lived world. Malick’s film, thanks to typically fantastic camera work by Emmanuel Lubezki (“The Revenant”), functions perfectly well as a moderately plotted collection of unique sights – things that are simply just cool to see – whether Mara and Gosling playing around with each other or Val Kilmer (“The Salton Sea”) showing up out of nowhere and delivering a surprisingly powerful brief performance as a crazed frontman, or Fassbender kicking around a soccer ball with the Red Hot Chili Peppers, or Iggy Pop shirtlessly waxing poetic, or Patti Smith imparting words of wisdom to Mara and really to us all.
Like the woman in front of me, those who seek masterfully constructed drama should avoid at all costs, but, like her friend who seemed to be having a better time like myself, those who just seek thrills on celluloid should be content to let Malick’s swooping camera capture life in the Live Music Capital of the World.