TIFF13: Can a Song Save Your Life? (2013)

One of the challenges of a festival like TIFF can be sorting your own signal from the noise on social media platforms. It’s particularly easy to have the glut of varying opinions cause you to second-guess a warm first impression of a film. Still, I think the best course is to report on one’s own honest reaction to a film. In the case of Can a Song Save Your Life?, from Once director John Carney, my reaction was unabashedly positive, even if on the surface the story of the film sounds crazy clichéd.

Can a Song Save Your Life? tells the story of Greta, played by Keira Knightley showing herself to be one of the more interesting young actresses today in the variety of roles she takes on (A Dangerous Method, Anna Karenina), a young British songwriter who after coming to New York with her pop star boyfriend, played by Maroon 5’s Adam Levine channeling his own public persona, finds herself betrayed and disillusioned with the industry. One evening at a small bar, she is coaxed onto stage by her friend to play one of her songs. Her song captures the attention of Dan, a down-on-his-luck record exec played wonderfully by Mark Ruffalo, and after the performance Dan tries to convince Greta to let him produce her songs.

The story of two individuals who seek redemption through music is a staple of the musical genre, and Carney’s film treads a fine line between affection for the genre and the music world and searching for an authenticity that the industry has no interest in. What’s amazing about his film is that despite the presence of real world musicians in supporting roles (Cee Lo Green plays one of Dan’s first signings and Yasiin Bey aka Mos Def plays Dan’s business partner, in addition to the presence of Levine), the film manages to capture, at least to me, the magic of song.

One of the challenges of films of this type is that when you say that someone’s art is great, the film then has to show it – or in this case let us hear it. Fortunately Carney and his songwriters do a good job of writing some lovely songs, even if I can’t quite hum any one of them to myself a day later (I’m not a musician). It also speaks to the role of a producers vision, in one unique scene giving us Dan's aural visualization of how he will produce Greta's song.

Mark Ruffalo manages to play Dan with an easy charm, yet embody his broken aspects as well. His relationship with his estranged wife (Catherine Keener) and his teenage daughter (Hailee Steinfeld) are handled with a delicate touch that never overwhelms the film or feels out of place in the narrative. All the performances are warm and open, and play to the actors strengths.

One of the most impressive things about the film is, given the genre and the increase in profile of this film with Hollywood stars and more polished cinematography, is all the ways in which the film resists the conventions. Without giving too much away, the film manages to wrap things up in a satisfying ending and yet resists plot resolutions that so many Hollywood films resort to.

This bodes well for the film’s public reception when the Weinstein’s distribute it later this year. Can a Song Save Your Life? is just different enough to satisfy those tired with Hollywood formula, but comfortable enough and joyous enough to break through to the mainstream. This film put a smile on my face, and I can’t deny it; I would watch it again in a minute and that’s pretty high praise.

8 out of 10

Can a Song Save Your Life? (2013, USA)

Written and directed by John Carney; starring Keira Knightley, Mark Ruffalo, Adam Levine, Catherine Keener, Hailee Steinfeld, Cee Lo Green, Yasiin Bey.

Can a Song Save Your Life? played on September 7 and 8, and again on the 14th at the 2013 Toronto International Film Festival as part of the Special Presentations programme.