A well-crooned country tune can invest even the hoariest cliches with honest feeling, and in much the same fashion, “The Song” takes a familiar tale of love, marriage, betrayal and redemption, and delivers a largely satisfying rendition. One of the better Christian-themed independent productions to come along in a year that has seen the genre plummet to hitherto-uncharted levels of idiocy (“God’s Not Dead,” “Persecuted”), this moralistic yet lushly romantic melodrama — about a rising singer-songwriter struggling to hold onto his marriage in the face of worldly temptations — boasts enough in the way of persuasive acting and stirring music to play like an emotionally involving love story rather than a rote pro-monogamy lecture. With word-of-mouth support, a marketable soundtrack and a “Duck Dynasty” endorsement, it should make solid commercial inroads with targeted churchgoers.
Richard Ramsey’s feature writing-directing debut is somewhat misleadingly billed as “the sexiest faith-based movie” ever, which goes hand-in-hand with the claim that it was inspired by the Bible’s sexiest book. That would be the Song of Solomon, an ecstatically lyrical love poem whose florid language and breath-quickening erotic similes have enlivened many a Sunday service (at least, for those inclined to flip idly through the Old Testament mid-sermon). The similarities between that book and this PG-13-rated movie are grounded not in sensuous imagery, but rather in their shared conception of holy matrimony as an essential foundation of sexual union.
Making these intentions clear at the outset, the film kicks off with a prologue that loosely updates David and Bathsheba: A ’70s-era country legend named David King (groan) has an affair with a married woman named Bethany (they’re played by Christian recording artist Aaron Benward and his wife, Kenda), and amid the dramatic fallout, they marry and have a son, Jed. Played as an adult by Alan Powell, Jed King aspires to be a musician like his father but has trouble crawling out from beneath his shadow — until he meets Rose Jordan (Ali Faulkner), the sweet, fresh-faced daughter of a Kentucky winemaker (the aptly named Danny Vinson). Immediately smitten, the banjo-strumming Jed woos Rose with both chivalry and chutzpah; the morning after their wedding night, he writes and sings for her the love song from which the film draws its title.
Five years later, that tune is a megahit, and Jed has become a Christian-music phenomenon, allowing him to provide comfortably for Rose and their young son, Ray (Jude Ramsey), though his busy touring schedule has become a source of considerable friction. That becomes especially problematic when Jed acquires an opening act by the name of Shelby Bale (Caitlin Nicol-Thomas), a sultry, dark-haired violinist who drinks, smokes, pops pills and flirts incessantly, and who might as well have “woman of loose morals” stamped on her forehead to go along with all her piercings and tattoos. The sins of the father will be repeated by the son in due course, but rather than rushing the inevitable, the film patiently charts the long, slow buildup of Jed and Rose’s marital discontent. By the time he starts fiddling around with Shelby, his treachery seems born of not just desire, but defiance.
Arriving six years after the 2008 hit “Fireproof,” “The Song” is scarcely the first Christian-produced movie to spin a save-your-marriage cautionary tale. Nor is it the first movie, faith-based or otherwise, to depict the contemporary music industry as a hotbed of lust, lucre and substance abuse — all of which conspire to turn Jed and Shelby’s stormy offstage relationship into an embarrassing onstage scandal. Yet it plumbs these issues more deeply, and honestly, than many movies of its God-fearing ilk, most of which eagerly short-circuit narrative tension in favor of spiritual uplift, as if drama itself were something inherently sinful. Love and mercy prevail in the end, of course, although not until after David completes his transformation into a bleeding, bleary-eyed wreck, complete with the sort of 100-day rehab beard that suggests a cross between Junkie Jesus and 2009-era Joaquin Phoenix.
Make no mistake, “The Song” is as manipulative as you-know-what: A family tragedy is perfectly timed to compound the agony of Jed’s moral failure, and several key sequences are framed with Scripture readings, mostly from the book of Ecclesiastes. (“I have seen everything done under the sun / all of it is meaningless, a chasing after wind” becomes a lyrical refrain of sorts throughout, and a cover version of the Byrds’ “Turn! Turn! Turn!” rounds out the soundtrack.) The gender dynamics are reductive at best, forcing Jed to choose between his whore of a lover and his saint of a wife; no one in the audience need fear that he will ultimately make anything but the right decision.
Fortunately, the performances are strong enough to transcend those parameters: Faulkner and Nicol-Thomas invest their characters with subtle gradations of pain and longing, and their histrionics in the later reels bear the weight of genuine conviction. And Powell is excellent in the lead role; that handsome, beaming face we see at the beginning seems to darken and corrode as the film progresses, and he and Faulkner have enough natural chemistry to convince the heart as well as the mind that the Kings’ marriage is indeed worth fighting for.
Powell, a singer-songwriter with the Christian band Anthem Lights, socks over Jed’s musical performances with effortless flair, anchoring the production’s low-budget yet reasonably convincing facsimile of a globe-trotting concert tour. Taking full advantage of the contributions of composer/music producer Vince Emmett, the film features a well-integrated soundtrack of 13 original songs that help sustain and deepen the drama in ways that would render an altar-call moment superfluous. Its moral agenda may be utterly transparent — which doesn’t, incidentally, make it any less worth taking seriously — but “The Song” understands how music, far more than cant or ideology, can lift the soul.