Picture yourself in a boat on a river with tangerine trees and marmalade skies, somebody calls you, you answer quite slowly, Natalie Portman arrives with kaleidoscope eyes. Television legend Noah Hawley of Fargo and Legion promises as much with his feature film directorial debut, but even the thought of a film about a woman’s journey to outer space and back sounds too good to be true after fittingly being named for a Beatles song. Yet as Lucy rises up to the sky, you’re wondering where all the diamonds are, for Lucy in the Sky doesn’t shine as much as you’d want something that sounds like a jewel to do so. It isn’t a bad movie per se, but given the sort of potential that this could have been considering the talent involved, Lucy in the Sky should have been a diamond – but it just never quite gets to that level.
I grew up in a family of musicians; my father plays trumpet, my mother was a musical theater kid. My brother and sister were both in marching band; my sister played French horn, which she’s since put down, and my brother played trombone, which he still plays today. I myself went through a saxophone and drum phase before deciding that I was better suited to appreciate music than play it.
See, even when it’s in your blood, you have to connect to it. The human desire to create means that there are so many barriers to a career in entertainment, ranging from talent to sheer luck, that you can’t be in it if you don’t love it because it will beat you down. My sister decided early that she wasn’t cut out for it and became a teacher. My brother, on the other hand, took a real run at it—and it actually treated him well. Still, it was a long road stacked with sacrifices both emotional and physical, and one thing that was ruined for him in the process was the concept of the rags-to-riches music drama. Not that we’re all necessarily looking forward to Bradley Cooper’s take on A Star is Born (though I’ll say, gotta respect that Matthew Libatique photography), but I’m pretty sure his response to the trailer would be a long, loud fart noise. Music doesn’t turn on out-of-nowhere discoveries and overnight sensations, he’d argue; nobody opens the door for you. According to him, the key to success in the music industry is to beat yourself against the door until you break it open, only to find that you’re in a room full of doors. You then have to pick one and beat yourself against that, and hope that when or if you bust through, it doesn’t drop you out of the damn building. I’d argue that the fairy tale of it all is still entertaining, and holds aspirational value to us as a collective. For my brother, who lives in the thick of the struggle, they’re impossible to buy into at best, irresponsible at worst.
I thought about my brother a lot while watching Hearts Beat Loud, the new drama from director Brett Haley (TheHero, I’ll See You In My Dreams). It’s been out for a while at this point, but it just recently started playing in my area, and I decided to see it on a lark. I knew the basic premise, and I knew a friend of mine saw it while she was in the city and couldn’t stop raving about it. To be honest, I was expecting something that swung for the fences; my friend compared it to John Carney’s Sing Street, which was my favorite film of 2016 and dealt in the kind of sweeping narrative choices and big romantic proclamations I’m often drawn to, the kind that lends themselves to the music industry fairy tales that my brother despises. (Of course, that’s not the kind of movie Sing Street is; for the record, my brother mostly loved that movie, but I suspect Carney’s previous work, Begin Again, would make him break out in hives.)
That’s not the story Haley (and co-writer Marc Basch) is telling, though. This is a focused slice-of-life piece about a month in the lives of widower dad Frank (Nick Offerman) and his daughter Sam (Kiersey Clemons). Frank’s a musician who runs a small record shop in Red Hook, Brooklyn; Sam, however, is off to UCLA in the fall to become a doctor and is already absorbed in summer classes at a local college to stay competitive. This, of course, is a fairly expensive ambition, so changes have to be made: After 17 years in business, Frank’s shutting down the record shop to get a real job that will help put Sam through school, much to the consternation of his friend and landlady Leslie (Toni Collette).
Though Sam’s dead set on being a doctor, she’s also a hell of a musician in her own right and enjoys bonding with Frank over regular jam sessions. During one such session, they turn some lyrics that Sam wrote and a catchy keyboard hook into a powerful single, with Sam singing lead and handling most of the production while Frank plays guitar. In a heady, borderline drunken mix of faith in his daughter and longing for the old days, Frank rolls the dice and uploads the single to Spotify, though he doesn’t really believe anything will come of it. In a wild twist of fate, however, Spotify puts it on a weekly playlist alongside several other high-tier indie rock acts.
Weeks before Sam’s set to leave for college, the world’s biggest music streaming service has deemed her little daddy-daughter garage band act worthy of being listed with the likes of Spoon. Now what?
Is it time for Sam to reassess her priorities and get ready to go on tour? Not quite. As Frank should know all too well, getting a little attention for a single and some interest in representation doesn’t mean you’re destined for stardom; there are levels to success when you’re a musician, and Sam’s all too aware that she and Frank have stumbled into the lowest one. Frank’s the dreamer; he wants to lean into it and see how far they can take it. Sam’s the realist; she doesn’t want to throw her life away on a silly band, no matter how good she might be at it. The question becomes, what responsibility do you have to develop your own latent talent? Is it more irresponsible to ignore a valid career path for something you love but will probably fail at, or ignore your obvious love of something for guaranteed money doing something else? The easy answer in these situations may be to “follow your heart,” but what happens when your heart genuinely wants these two incompatible things, both the stability and adventure of medical school in LA and the excitement and comfort of making music with your old man in Brooklyn? (Haley’s set up an interesting dynamic with this; most people go to LA to become famous, but here it’s the other way around, where staying home feels like more of a risk.)
These are big questions, and Haley answers them, but not directly; he stays laser-focused on the loving relationship between father and daughter, throwing in a bunch of interesting side characters that allow them to reveal other sides of themselves. In addition to Leslie, whom Frank grows closer to over the course of the movie, Ted Danson shows up as Frank’s pothead confidante and local bartender, while Sasha Lane makes a winning appearance as Rose, a young artist who captures Sam’s heart and makes the prospect of leaving Brooklyn a lot more complicated. Blythe Danner also appears for a couple of scenes as Marianne, Frank’s mom and Sam’s grandma who’s slowly succumbing to dementia, further complicating any hypothetical rock stardom scenarios that Frank and Sam might entertain, local or otherwise. Everyone here turns in great, gentle supporting performances, with an emphasis on “supporting.” Haley and Basch don’t have anyone even resembling an antagonist in their script, preferring to play directly to the nuanced conflict between Frank and Sam.
The whole movie rests on the shoulders of Nick Offerman and Kiersey Clemons, and they carry it with ease. As Frank, Offerman sheds his trademark imposing machismo and plays Frank as a fairly chill overgrown teenager. Clemons, a talented young actress who was one of the few bright spots of the otherwise ill-advised Flatliners remake, proves to be incredibly winning while she tries to chart this complicated course between her feelings of responsibility and her desires. Neither of them plays their characters as arch; Frank’s no stage dad who has to learn to let go of the past, and Sam’s no workaholic who needs to pace herself. They’ve already had 18 years to learn from each other, they clearly love each other, and at this point, they’re just trying to balance their own desires with whatever seems “right.” Consequently, they do each other wrong at times, but they’re often quick to forgive and forget and quietly work through their conflicts, both with each other and within themselves, by making music, climaxing in a concert that isn’t so much make-or-break for whatever hopes and dreams they may have as it is a powerful, personal breakthrough in their relationship. The film, then, is less of a fairy tale and more about the raw therapeutic power of music, or perhaps any form of art; how it can communicate for you when the words don’t quite come, how it can make things clear when life seems fuzzy and uncertain. Art, Haley argues, is bigger than simple up-or-down success.
That’s not to say he spells it out for you. In arriving at this point, Haley doesn’t seem as interested in epic gestures and revelations as he is in natural growth. Both Frank and Sam end the movie as different people than how they started, but their changes don’t come through sudden revelations as they do from the weight of their combined experiences throughout the film. The first time I saw Sing Street, I wanted to stand up and cheer and clap and dance in the aisles to “Drive It Like You Stole It” while it played over the credits. I didn’t want to leave the theater after Hearts Beat Loud either, but rather than dance, I just wanted to quietly soak it all in.
On the technical front, the film is low-key but far from cheap. This isn’t a story that demands slick visuals; rather, Haley and cinematographer Eric Lin build their film on simple, colorful setups that effectively tell the story. There’s a shot of Sam and Rose in bed together, fully clothed, that sticks out to me as communicating more intimacy than some sex scenes on the simple merit of how perfectly it’s framed and colored (of course, credit that to the strong chemistry between Clemons and Lane as well). Meanwhile, Patrick Colman’s editing brings the musical sequences to percussive life, and Keegan DeWitt’s music is splendid; his original songs are wonderful, emotional indie-pop confections, and he uses the underlying melodies of those songs to build a score rife with heartache and reflection.
Having never seen any of Haley’s films before—which is something I’m going to have to remedy very soon—I had momentarily fallen into the trap of assuming this was a breakout first feature from him; this is obviously not the case, but it points to the appeal of the myth of the overnight sensation that my brother hates so much. See, as false as it may be, there’s a certain joy to be taken in watching a talent come from seemingly out of nowhere to knock you on your ass. That’s the joy I felt watching this film, and knowing Haley’s been doing this for even just a few years doesn’t change the fact that I didn’t know his name before today. For me, there’s an irony in the fact that Brett Haley has gotten my attention with a film that plays down the importance of getting attention and focuses on the joys of art for its own sake.
See Hearts Beat Loud at your earliest possible convenience. See it with someone special if you can; significant other or beloved family member, it doesn’t matter. Just make sure the volume is cranked up accordingly.
Watch the trailer right here.
All images via Gunpowder & Sky
Directed by Brett Haley
Written by Brett Haley and Marc Basch
Produced by Sam Bisbee, Houston King & Sam Slater
Starring Nick Offerman, Kiersey Clemons, Sasha Lane, Toni Collette, Ted Danson, Blythe Danner
Release Year: 2018
Running Time: 97 minutes
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