The over-the-ear headphones worn by Song One’s characters are a vintage indicator of the film’s intimate and essential relationship to music. Henry (Ben Rosenfield) is wearing a pair that likely affects his hearing when he’s hit by a car. In the wake of the accident, which lands him in a coma, his mother (Mary Steenburgen) summons his sister, Franny (Anne Hathaway), home from Morocco, where she’s studying for a PhD in anthropology. Consumed with guilt for having broken off communication with Henry when he dropped out of college to pursue a music career, and now unable to offer him an apology, she seeks to exorcise her guilt by combing through his diary for clues in the hopes of finding a mystical way of reaching him. She listens to his music of choice and visits his preferred music venues, eventually meeting cute with his favorite musician, a singer-songwriter named James Forrester (Johnny Flynn).
It’s not so much the plot convolutions that bring these two together that feel creaky as the rote turns their relationship takes—from the way Franny becomes James’s muse and, as a result, cures both his writer’s block and struggles with sudden fame, to his affection salving her depression. This snapshot of catharsis, which reveals Henry’s coma as a metaphor for Franny’s awakening, follows a familiar trajectory, but writer-director Kate Barker-Froyland refreshingly resists elevating their relationship to the level of grandiose.
“You know when you have a feeling and you don’t want it to fade away, but you don’t really know how to keep it?” James asks Franny during one of their heart to hearts. It might be preciously platitudinal, but it’s a sentiment Song One captures with a naturalistic dreaminess, connecting the transitory glory of music with the fleeting nature of the main characters’ love affair. Though the soundtrack is comprised primarily of solid folk-rock tunes, the film itself often feels more like a bubblegum pop song, one whose familiar lyrics work to effusively evoke a deep-seated primal longing born of emotional agony that’s temporarily remedied in these characters’ soulful fling and connection to music itself. Better yet, the movie has the veracity to acknowledge that once the song ends, the real world still looms.