The Song • Thimblerig’s Review

The_Song_(2014)_Official_Poster

I just watched The Song.

And I’m angry.

I don’t remember the last time I had such a visceral reaction to watching a film.  I mean, the credits are rolling, and I just want to punch the wall.  I want to hurl my glass into the fireplace.  I want to take a 2×4 and shatter the windows of the cathedral I’m building.

Why?  What could possibly make me so angry about a film?

It’s simple.  I’m angry that a film that is so inspiring, so challenging, so authentic, so brave, so introspective, and so enjoyable hasn’t been seen by more people, while lesser films – both Christian and secular – thrive.

Make more money than they should.

Win $100,000 awards for being inspirational that they simply don’t deserve.

I suppose if King Solomon were asked to comment on this situation, he would throw his hands in the air and quote himself from Ecclesiastes 1:2: “Meaningless!  Meaningless!  Everything is meaningless!”

You should try it sometime.  It really does put things into perspective, doesn’t it?

But seriously, I loved The Song.  I really, really loved The Song.  As you read this review, I hope that this sentiment comes across louder than my anger over my sense of injustice (okay, maybe “injustice” is too strong a word) that the film hasn’t been seen by everyone.  And I hope that reading this blog will encourage you to put this film on your Netflix queue to be watched sooner rather than later.

Trust me, you won’t regret it.

The Song is the story of King Solomon set in modern times, with the protagonist a singer/songwriter named Jed King (Alan Powell).  Jed is struggling to get out from underneath the shadow of his superstar father, David King (Aaron Benward), and is finally inspired to write a breakout hit because of his love for his newlywed wife, Rose (Ali Faulkner).  King’s success and fame pull him away from his wife and growing family, and when the attractive and tempting Shelby Bale (Caitlin Nicol-Thomas) joins his tour, King is faced with hard choices that will radically change his life.

As usual, let me start with what I liked about the film.

1.  The Direction

thesong-group

Director Richard Ramsey, with actors Caitlin Nicol-Thomas, Alan Powell, and Ali Faulkner

I had the pleasure of interviewing Richard Ramsey a few months back about his life, this film, and his ideas on filmmaking in the Christian community.  I was impressed by Ramsey’s thoughtful attitude on the subject of Christian-made art, and appreciated that we had a shared dissatisfaction with much of what we – as Christians – produce.

The interview was great, but it also made me incredibly nervous to watch The Song.  What if, after all the fantastic things Ramsey had to say, the movie sucked eggs?  How in the world would I be able to write that review?

Thankfully, that was not the case.  With credit also going to cinematographer Kevin Bryan and editor Jared Hardy, Ramsey made a beautifully shot and cut film.  I loved the style of it, the use of light, the symbolism that was found throughout.  This was a project borne out of passion, and these filmmakers put their hearts and souls onto the screen, a truth that is evident from FADE IN to FADE OUT.

I especially want to note the opening of the film, which is reminiscent of the montage that opens Pixar’s Up.  The first five minutes of The Song is a powerful montage depicting the imperfect life and early death of David King, which serves as a wonderful setup for Jed’s story.  It drew me in, and made me care about what would happen to the son of the King.

The-Song-ali-faulkner-photo-624x266Richard Ramsey has a strong director’s voice, an obvious sense of visual style, and is a definite storyteller.  Based on this, his first time in the cinematic captain’s chair, I definitely look forward to seeing what he does next in the world of feature films.

 

2.  The Story

I was nervous about the premise of the film when I first heard about it, because it came across as almost gimmicky.  The idea of setting the life of King Solomon in the present, in the world of country music?  It reminded me too much of the countless Shakespearean productions that have attempted this sort of thing to a varied level of success.

If I have to suffer through one more version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream set in outer space or Love’s Labours Lost in a 1920’s speakeasy…

Thankfully, in the case of The Song, the conceit worked.

The-Song-photo-Caitlin-Nicol-Thomas-Alan-Powell-singing-624x260The story of Jed King was solid from beginning to end.  It ably showed his journey from son of a star to happily married man, to big-time success, to frustrated husband, and then the descent.  And the descent was true-to-life, and horrifying.  So often in Christian-made films, the filmmakers seem to live in fear for showing the ugliness and reality of sin, but that was not the case with The Song.  Jed falls hard and far, and we’re voyeurs, watching helplessly as he comes crashing to the ground.

And then we get to see what happens next, which I won’t spoil.  But I will say that it is satisfying.

The Song was compelling storytelling, a fantastic character study, with banjos and fiddles to boot.

Which leads me to my next positive point.

3.  The Music

I want to say a big thank you to music director, Vince Emmett.  Music can make a story more accessible when it’s not just background, when it serves the story almost as a character, and can add power to the punch the filmmaker is trying to land.  The Song did this in spades.  The music – almost bluegrass at times, sort of country at others – helped the movie fit well into a long tradition of musical films such as Dreamgirls, Walk the Line, The Commitments, and That Thing You Do!.

And special props to director and jack-of-all-trades Richard Ramsey, who also had a hand in composing many of the songs along with several other fantastic songwriters.  Of course, a film like this couldn’t succeed without top notch musicians, and actors who could both sing and act, and The Song had both.

You can sample the album here, and follow the links on that page if you want to purchase it.  Having just done so myself, I would highly recommend adding it to your collection.

4.  The Acting

Alan-Powell-as-Jed-The-Song-king-on-throne-photoThe Song has actors who can sing, but also actors who can act.  It seems funny to say this as a positive, but good acting is not a given in the world of Christian-made filmmaking.  For now, that’s just the reality, but I’m hopeful that films like The Song can help dispel that stereotype.  Did they hire actors who could sing?  Or did they hire singers who could act?  Either way, it’s clear that the filmmakers chose their actors carefully, and the payoff was a well-acted film.

5.  The Grittiness

As I said earlier, the film doesn’t shy away from showing the harshness of life, that actions – good and bad – have consequences, that a fall is usually something that happens gradually and with open eyes.  And while the film deals openly with hard issues like sexual infidelity, drug abuse, alcoholism, and the like, it’s never gratuitous.

I think the way The Song handled these difficult subjects could serve as a template for future faith-based films seeking to show the hard stories of the Bible in an honest, open manner.

And this brings me to the second part of the review.  What I didn’t like about the film.

To be honest, the only thing I didn’t like was Jed King’s out-of-control beard.  You have to understand, I’m a beard guy as much as anyone, but it was approaching Civil War, Duck Dynasty length by the end.  At one point, I thought they’d misnamed the film, and rather than calling it The Song, they should have considered The Beard.

THE BEARD

Anyone with me?  Anyone?  No?

In the interest of full disclosure, I should mention that I discussed the film with a friend who also watched it today, separately from me, and by my recommendation.  While she basically liked the movie, she felt that it moved too slow, and it was too introspective for her taste.  So, you should watch the movie realizing that things happen at a slow burn, but when stuff starts to burn, it’s worth the wait.

Finally, when I wrote What’s Wrong with Christian Filmmaking a year ago, I said that Christian filmmakers needed to do five things so that our filmmaking could have an impact outside the Christian bubble.

Those five things included:

1.  Our films need to take more risks.

The Song was definitely risky, taking the audience to uncomfortable places, shining light on dark spaces.  Even the idea of making a film based on a character from the Bible is risky, because it forces us to re-examine our preconceived notions of these characters, to see them as actual living and breathing people who made sometimes tragic mistakes, just as we do.

2.  Our films need to challenge our audience.

Because The Song did #1 so well, it was definitely a challenging film.  Again, we often don’t want to examine the uglier sides of life, but the darkness is illuminated by the light, and provides a stark contrast.  It’s valuable to allow our art to go to these places to help us to understand them, and to avoid the traps the darkness might try to set.

3.  The pulpit is the pulpit, and art is art, and we need to let them be the two different things that they are – in other words, don’t have preachy, didactic films.

As ironic as it might sound for a film based on a person from the Bible, The Song was anything but preachy, at least not in the modern evangelical sense of the word.  The film is full of truth in much the way Scripture is full of truth.  The only reason people might feel preached at in this film is because the film mentions God, examines questions of faith, and was directed by a Christian.  However, those people need to learn to approach films based on the merits of the film, and not their own preconceived notions.

4.  Our films shouldn’t give all the answers.

While it could have been interesting to end the film unsure if Rose takes Jed back, it would have been unfulfilling, considering the romantic nature of the film.  While I am a fan for ambiguity in film when appropriate, it wouldn’t have worked in this case.  Besides, there are plenty of unanswered questions – do Rose and Jed make it?  What happened to Shelby?  Does Jed continue singing?  Sometimes the Hollywood ending works.

5.  We are beholden to tell good stories.

As I’ve already discussed, The Song does this, and does it quite well.

And so, to conclude my review, I’m pleased to award The Song five out of five Golden Groundhogs, only the second time a film has earned such a high score (Believe Me was the first).  Thank you again, Richard Ramsey and City on a Hill, for bringing such a wonderful film to life.

Golden Groundhogs The Song

I watched The Song on the first night of my 40 Days (and Nights) of Christian Media Challenge.  It was a good way to begin the challenge.  Please check back to the blog often to read about my journey.

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13 thoughts on “The Song • Thimblerig’s Review

  1. The only other negative I noticed is the terrible previews. When I saw The
    Song in theaters, there was a preview for Kirk Cameron’s movie, Saving Christmas. It made me nervous, to say the least. And then the DVD previews… The Grace Card??? The only reason I ventured to see and promote The Song to friends is because I happen to know Richie personally and trust in his ability to write a meaningful script without cheese. But how can creators of independent Christ-centered media distance themselves from the make-me-cringe christian media industry and still get a decent audience? Do you think the christian media industry will get better over time? Is there any hope??

    • Unfortunately, just like you might see a preview of Grown Ups 3 before a really good, fresh, original comedy, you potentially have to sit through all kinds of dreck before a good Christian-made film. That sort of thing is in the hands of someone else.

      This is why I advocate Christian filmmakers move away from having their films labeled “faith-based”, because it automatically lumps the film in a category that, frankly, stinks. The hard part is, they want to reach that elusive and ready-to-spend-money faith-based audience. But that audience is not only elusive, but fickle, and doesn’t give a rip about good quality movies – just that the four spiritual laws are plainly presented simply enough that a monkey could repent after watching.

      I am hopeful that it will get better over time, but it would happen much faster if the bulk of the faith-based audience would educate itself on the difference between good filmmaking and on-screen sermonizing.

      How about you? What do you think?

  2. I think the bad faith-based film problem is generational. I’m 29, and I cannot fathom any of my Christian friends going to see something like Saving Christmas. But I think my parents generation feels like their values are unrepresented in secular media. So, attending a faith-based movie is self-affirming and a statement to the world of, “my values matter too.” I don’t think they are looking for good art. I think they are trying to fight back against secular (and leftist) culture, which they feel very threatened by. So, these kinds of films will probably exist as long as the generation exists. I think the faith-based film industry will either have to morph to compete for the younger generation’s attention (who are very comfortable with consuming secular media) or eventually die.

    I don’t think the faith-based audience did The Song any favors. It was rejected by Lifeway because it wasn’t squeaky clean. But would it have even been seen if it didn’t have the faith-based label?? I don’t know. Probably not.

    The question is: how can art loving believers support talented artists who aren’t just pandering to the faith-based audience so they don’t have to associate with all these terrible movies? It’s a difficult situation because we want to support artists who use their art to draw people to contemplate Christ. But we don’t want to create another niche, isolated film industry that is crappy simply because it doesn’t have to compete with mainstream artists.

    • I’ve been meaning to comment on this, Brynn, but it got away from me.

      I’m especially ticked that LIfeway rejected selling the film, but they didn’t seem to have a problem selling all the supporting materials. You can get the Bible study, the music, the novel, but not the movie. That’s just insane.

      But at the same time, considering many of the subpar titles Lifeway sells, maybe it’s better that The Song not be included among them.

      Cheers,
      Nate

  3. Pingback: 40 Days (and Nights) of Christian Media • Day 3 | Thimblerig's Ark

  4. Well, I can’t watch The Song, because it hasn’t arrived in South Africa. A search through the South African iTunes Store gives me The Last Song (a Miley Cyrus movie made in 2010) or Brian’s Song (a James Caan movie, based on the lives of Sayers and Piccolo — two Chicago Bears football players, released in 1971).

    Blah! But I can watch the trailers over and over again on YouTube. And while I got excited about one day seeing the film, I did go, “Ew!” about the beard. I am married to a bearded man and I love beards, but not that one! I thought maybe they were using the beard as some sort of an analogy? But not having seen the film, I couldn’t make that call.

    Some day we will get The Song. I hope. And by then maybe someone will have told us what that beard is about. 🙂

  5. Pingback: Nine Things I Learned from 40 Days (and Nights) of Christian Media. Yes, it’s over. | Thimblerig's Ark

  6. Ya big tease. You alluded to Netflix and I went straight to my queue. Not there. 😦

    But it *is* in Redbox. And I just got a free one-day rental code. 🙂

  7. After a second viewing, I have a theory. And trust me, it’s nothing more than that, because I’m way too left-brained to be taken seriously on this.

    I saw the beard as a metaphor. The further Jed got from his faith and his center, the longer it got. And when he hit rock bottom, not only was it at its longest, but it was also scraggly and out of control.

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