Curtain raiser for the Toronto film fest, “Whale Music” is an offbeat, tuneful romance just a shade too quirky to swim in the mainstream. The oddball saga of a burned-out rock star and the tough runaway who invades his tumbledown estate has decided artistic as-sets but doesn’t connect on an emotional level. Best theatrical prospects are in the margins, with offshore appeal likely to out-perform domestic returns.
Somewhere in the Pacific Northwest, Desmond Howl (Maury Chaykin) has retreated from the grind of recording studios and concert tours. The run-down manor he inhabits (thanks to rich residual checks) mirrors his own unkempt appearance. But in the midst of decay, the childlike music genius has installed a state-of-the-art recording studio and devotes himself to creating a masterwork — a symphonic piece for whales. The ramshackle harmony threatens to come undone with the arrival of Claire (Cyndy Preston), a rather frank young woman on the run from the law. The surprise is that Howl allows her into his realm and, slowly but steadily, finds her presence a refreshing, almost compulsory aspect of his life.
The film painstakingly details not only the evolution of Howl’s composition but also the growing attachment between two seemingly unsuited people. It’s truly an instance where you can’t help but cheer on these unlikely partners in extraordinary circumstances.
The potential union is muddied by the myriad demons who haunt Desmond — people both living and dead who are fighting for a piece of him. They include Fay (Jennifer Dale), his ex-wife bent on getting him to sell the house, and Kenneth (Kenneth Welsh), the recording exec who owns every note he creates. Most disturbing is an unresolved problem between Howl and his brother (Paul Gross), his singing partner who died in an auto accident that may or may not have been a suicide. He pops up repeatedly in chilling, provocative hallucinations.
While the elements of “Whale Music” are promising, they never coalesce with enough impact to reach a broad audience, although the two central performers work hard to make us care about their plight. Chaykin is a particular standout in a role that literally and figuratively strips him naked for the camera. It’s his work that elevates the film from minor appeal to soul-stirring material.
But even Chaykin cannot overcome several key shortcomings. The film’s song score just isn’t of a quality to convince viewers Howl is a major talent. The narrative, too, is diluted by a split focus in which the filmmaker feels compelled to give inordinate weight to secondary concerns.
While modest in budget, the film has a first-rate look and exceptional, effective sound design. But first-time feature director Richard J. Lewis fails to maintain a distinct focus and allows his pacing to falter. It’s the goodwill generated by Chaykin’s virtually defenseless character that keeps our interest through the narrative lulls.
An unquestionable marketing challenge, “Whale Music” will hit a chord with a select audience. Its commercial prospects, however, are as fragile as the characters it portrays.