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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Thimblerig’s Interview • Richard Ramsey, Writer and Director of “The Song”

photo courtesy of City on a Hill Productions

photo courtesy of City on a Hill Productions

I am thrilled to present an interview with Richard Ramsey, the writer and director of the feature-length film The Song, which was released in theaters last fall and just came out on DVD on February 10.

Ramsey is also the Creative Director of City on a Hill Productions, an organization that uses storytelling to “inspire hope and offer a vision of the beauty of a Christian life.”  I’m personally very excited at what these folks are doing, especially when I read that their mission includes the following ideas:

We strive to craft multimedia resources for churches with the same level of artistry and sophistication that exists in the best Hollywood films. Our work includes design, development, recording, production, and post-production, and we provide multimedia consultation, instruction and training.

We want to help build a church where what you see and hear is just as engaging and relevant to your life as what you watch on television every night.

Our work seeks to create a gateway to Christ for people who wouldn’t have otherwise considered Jesus as a direction for their lives.

This is exactly the mindset that this blog has promoting for the past year!  So, I’m happy to do my small part to help promote City on a Hill, and help them further their mission.

To the interview…

I really enjoyed my casual China-to-Kentucky Skype conversation/interview with Ramsey last fall, when The Song had just been released in theaters all across America, and I’m glad to share notes from that online meeting with you.  But before we get to the interview, allow me to present the trailer for The Song.

Richard, thank you for taking the time to be interviewed for my Thimblerig’s Interview series.  Why don’t we start with you telling a bit about yourself and how you got involved in filmmaking.

I was born in Bowling Green, Kentucky. Before I can even remember, we moved to Houston where my dad got a job. While in high school in Houston, I was really into theater and loved acting and storytelling from that perspective.

After I graduated with a degree in theater from the University of Houston, a youth minister approached me and asked me to take over a youth drama group. My wife (girlfriend at the time) and I started writing plays for them to perform, and we really enjoyed it.  A lot of times as an actor you are at the mercy of the world view of the writer, and that was no longer the case for me.

Eventually my wife and I decided to try something with professional actors. We did a twenty minute film and entered it into a film festival, and from there I met the staff of City on a Hill productions in Louisville.

Several years later I moved to Louisville to join their staff. I’ve cut my teeth on a number of short films over the years, and The Song is my first feature length film.

Photo shamelessly swiped from Richard Ramsey's Facebook page

Photo shamelessly swiped from Richard Ramsey’s Facebook page

What were some surprises you had as you went from making shorts to a full length feature film?

The stamina that was required, as everything takes longer. If something takes you a week with a short film, it takes you eight weeks with a feature.

Also, I don’t want to use the word persecution, as that word is overplayed, but I think I was surprised by the prejudice I saw in the responses of some critics and audiences.

Prejudice because the film was a faith-based film?

There are times when people come into a film knowing it’s by an evangelical filmmaker and they can read the worst possible interpretation of things, because of prejudices. I’ve seen it done or felt it done to previous filmmakers or films I’ve seen, but to be honest, I underestimated it and was taken aback by it when I experienced it with The Song.

What do you think it will take to overcome that sort of prejudice?

I think it’s going to be a matter of individual filmmakers building credibility for themselves and the industry as a whole over time. I think it will also take a few breakout films to teach people not to necessarily expect certain things, and shake up the prejudices. And while not always the solution (Nicolas Cage in Left Behind), sometimes it will mean attaching big names to add some mystique to the projects.

Sadly, many Christians don’t care about overcoming filmmaking prejudice, they just want their faith-based films to have a clear presentation of the Gospel.  How do you respond to that idea?

That’s why most evangelical art is utterly abysmal, because we rate its merits on a purely utilitarian basis. I think that’s why many of our church buildings are ugly, because we don’t value beauty or mystery. We want all the answers, and we want everything spelled out for us, and we want to imagine that the movie is crystal clear, even to the most obtuse viewer. If we hold the parables of Jesus to that same standard, most would be found wanting. I can only think of one parable by Jesus that overtly depicts a conversion, and that is Luke 18:9-14, where the man says, “Have mercy on me, a sinner.” If it’s not the point of every story Jesus told, why should it be the point of every story we tell? It’s a ridiculous, unbiblical standard.

the-songHow did these ideas play into your writing and directing The Song?

The phrase I had in my head was actually from the parables of Jesus, and that was, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.” I’ve had people criticize me, saying that the film doesn’t contain the Gospel, but it’s actually in there. I gave you two dots and trust you to connect them. I don’t write for the most obtuse viewer I can imagine. It’s not fun to do that as a writer, and it’s not fun to engage with that as a viewer. I wanted to write a movie that worked for the reasons movies work, and a movie that looked like life, and I tried to use Jesus as a storytelling model.

How would you advise a Christian artist who wants to create something that reflects reality, including the ugliness of sin?   What’s the balance?

I try to strike this balance: the difference between simulated sin and committed sin. You can’t simulate being nude in a sex scene, or saying the Lord’s name in vain. You either do it, or you don’t. What are you simulating? And what are you actually committing?

You also have to acknowledge market realities. Sure, you could make an R-rated film as a Christian, but you have to ask yourself why you’re doing those things and ask this important question – what are pastors and other Christians going to encourage each other to see?

Concerning this notion of simulated and committed sin, when you were making The Song, how did you handle intimate scenes between men and women?  I’ve heard stories that Kirk Cameron had his wife stand in for the intimate scenes in Fireproof to maintain the purity of their marriage.  Did you do anything like that?

maxresdefaultFor our honeymoon scene, our lead actor had his wife stand in, which was a personal conviction he had at the time.  It’s not something I would be compelled to always do, like a hard and fast rule, but I was happy to honor the actor’s convictions.

There are a couple of schools of thought from an audience perspective and a Christian filmmaking perspective that actors in a Christian film need to be like ministers, because they are the carriers of the Gospel, and their lives should meet the standards of ministers. I disagree with that. I think it is true that the writer, the director, your high-end crew members are ministerial. They’re shaping the world view and controlling idea of the story. But the actors are people who could be ministered too, as much as anyone else. They can learn and grow from being in a Christian film. That’s not to dehumanize them and turn them into a project, I want to honor them, their convictions, their journey, their space, but at the same time I don’t put actors on the side of the line that treats them as pastors.

What projects do you have coming up?

City on a Hill does many Bible based DVD series, and we have one coming up in the spring on the Beatitudes.   As far as feature length films go, it will be a time of assessing where we go forward from The Song. I am in preliminary talks with some people involved in a true story that I would like to do, and all I can say is that if I get to that story, when it comes time to make the announcement, it might just break the internet.

Many thanks to Richard Ramsey for taking the time to talk to me and take part in this interview.

Make sure that you rent or download a copy of The Song today!  A Thimblerig’s Review should be forthcoming in the next couple of weeks.

Richard Ramsey on Twitter: @RichieRamsey

City on a Hill Productions on Twitter: @COAHStudio

The Song on Facebook and Twitter: /TheSongMovie & @SeeTheSong

Stay tuned to the Thimblerig’s Ark blog for more interviews with artists doing interesting non-conformist work in the name of Christ, and come join the Sacred Arts Revolution conversation over at Facebook!