TIFF 2013: Can a Song Save Your Life?

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Mark Ruffalo and Keira Knightley in Can a Song Save Your Life?
  • Mark Ruffalo and Keira Knightley in Can a Song Save Your Life?

Can a song save your life?

"Save" is a pretty strong verb. A song might be able to inspire, enlighten, enhance, intensify, sweeten, challenge, seduce or enrich your life. But save? I know that there are many of us who occasionally (when some alcohol is on the scene) think that a particular song could be the foundation of our very being. But come on; there's always another song. And another. Before you know it, you have eight absolutely favorite songs that you can't live without. If you only have one song on your mp3 player, you need to get out a little more.

That's why I struggled so much with the title of (you guessed it) Can a Song Save Your Life?, which had its world premiere this week at the Toronto International Film Festival. Love the movie; loathe the title.

This highly original story, infused with an instantly memorable soundtrack, is the latest work from Irish writer/director John Carney, who graced us with 2007's Once, which won an Oscar for Best Song ("Falling Slowly") and in turn, spun off a hit Broadway musical. This go-around, Carney has come to New York City, which serves as a co-star for the story of Greta, an indie singer-songwriter (Keira Knightley in fine form) attempting to regroup after being dumped by her rising-star boyfriend (Maroon 5's Adam Levine as a supreme douchebag).

The film opens in the seediest of downtown clubs, where Greta is dragged to the stage on an open-mic night and plucks out a few notes of a gentle song about being hurt and transparent. Into the club stumbles Dan, a washed-out record producer (the always great Mark Ruffalo), but as the audience almost entirely ignores Greta's performance, Dan instead hears (mostly in his head) a full orchestration of Greta's song. If you've ever spent any time with a record producer listening to the early incarnation of a song, you'll have great appreciation for this magical scene.

It takes quite a bit of doing, but Dan eventually convinces Greta to record several of her songs using street artists and students as backup musicians while recording the tracks on subway platforms, in Central Park shelters and in back alleys, giving the tracks some original ambient sound (children playing, traffic, the occasional siren or noisy neighbor). And as the music gets better, so does the movie. Along for the ride are Catherine Keener, Mos Def, CeeLo Green, James Corden and Hailee Steinfeld (you'll remember her from 2011's True Grit).

You can pretty much guess where the story is heading from the first frames of the film, but somehow it holds you because the music is so fine and the scenes are visually stunning. The movie is a tight 100 minutes and in the two screenings that I attended, the general public loved it while critics were a bit more blasé. I personally think that's a pretty good sign for a breakout art-house hit. And the soundtrack will be a smash and a guaranteed Oscar nominee.

Has my life been saved? Heavens no. But 100 minutes of it were just peachy.