With its cutesy title, John Carney’s “Can a Song Save Your Life?” distracts from the real question looming over the “Once” director’s latest blend of romance, music and dreams: Can Keira Knightley sing? Based on the available evidence, the answer to both inquiries is “yes,” making for another upbeat outing in which characters strum their way through tricky emotional situations, this time benefiting from a much bigger budget and set against the backdrop of New York City. Featuring Mark Ruffalo, Catherine Keener and Maroon 5 lead crooner Adam Levine onboard — and such producers as Judd Apatow and Nigel Sinclair behind it — this Weinstein Co. pickup could spark another mini-phenom, complete with musical tie-ins.
The original song-as-life-saver question overstates things a bit, as it’s a little hard to believe that washed-up A&R man Dan (Ruffalo) is thisclose to stepping in front of a moving subway when he stumbles into a pub and hears newly heartbroken songwriter Gretta (Knightley) perform a rough acoustic version of “Step You Can’t Take Back,” which echoes his distress on the train platform. Something about her performance sets his music-producer brain into action, fleshing out the in-progress tune with instruments only he can hear.
Dan’s been around long enough to see the music industry implode, watching as the biz abandoned genuine talent in favor of pop stars and pretty faces who sell on iTunes. Again, it’s a bit of a stretch to imagine Knightley as the antithesis to such acts, though there’s a purity to her approach, and the film offers Adam Levine as her brink-of-success ex-b.f. so auds can compare his over-produced sound (which is ironic, since his songs are likely to become the soundtrack’s most popular singles).
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Despite having been fired earlier that day by the record label that he founded, Dan begs Gretta to let him represent her. Turns out she’s not even looking for such an opportunity: Gretta writes music for the pleasure of it and harbors no dreams of hitting it big. But they share idealism in common: She’s not looking to be famous, and he has finally heard a voice that deserves to be.
What follows is a courtship, but not the kind you might expect. Rather, it’s a professional tango, as Dan tries to convince Gretta to trust him with her music, while she slowly comes to believe in and encourage the qualities in Dan with which he’d lost touch (including the strained yet unbroken connection with his ex-wife and daughter, played by Keener and Hailee Steinfeld, respectively).
Carney handles this different kind of attraction so well, you’re practically rooting for the two characters not to ruin everything by falling in love. Defying the usual Hollywood logic, the act of consummation here has nothing to do with sex, but instead means collaborating to make a demo album, for which he’s hatched the crazy idea of recording all the songs en plein air — which in New York means competing with the ambient noise of police sirens, car horns and shouted insults.
If Carney were still operating in “Once” mode, he and his crew really would have gone out and done those songs guerrilla-style. Instead, the production shot on authentic Gotham locations (in back alleys and building tops, on subway platforms and those corny Central Park rowboats) and mixed all the music electronically. It’s the thought that counts — and besides, anyone who knows the actual sounds of New York wouldn’t want to destroy such lovely songs with them. Even the club scene where Gretta first sings appears to have been performed in a studio and then tweaked to include the sounds of bottles clinking and people talking after the fact. While it is Knightley’s real voice whisper-singing the words, her lips never quite match onscreen.
Performance cheats aside, Gregg Alexander’s music is undeniably the best thing about “Can a Song Save Your Life?” Precious few music producers seem to pay attention to lyrics anymore, but the words matter here, often more than the dialogue itself (some of which Carney allows the actors to improvise, to mixed effect, clearly taking a cue from Apatow) as the songs say what the humans sometimes can’t.
In one of the picture’s best scenes, Levine’s character returns from a business trip and plays Gretta “Higher Place,” the new tune he was inspired to write on the road. Halfway through, her expression changes and she slaps him across the face, realizing that he’d written it for someone else entirely. Later, in another genuine-feeling moment, she says her piece by leaving a tell-off riff on his voicemail, building up to the line, “I have loved you like a fool,” while best friend and all-purpose buffoon James Corden accompanies her on keyboard (and kazoo).
Although the film isn’t a musical in the conventional sense, it does provide ample opportunity for songs, even if most of them aren’t allowed to play out in their entirety. The ones that matter repeat multiple times in different versions, building up to Levine’s heartbreaking rendition of “Lost Stars,” which pairs a legitimately once-in-a-blue-moon piece of songwriting with an equally strong bit of screenwriting. Cameron Crowe would be proud to have written such a scene, and Carney makes it the capper to a film that lays emotions on the line and then drives them home with music.