Songwriting collaborations are so often portrayed as mystical unions that those of us who aren’t in the room where it happens have to wonder if there aren’t just as many instances where oil and water refuse to mesh. At last, the testiness that can result when writing sessions go south is portrayed on screen in “I’m Going to Break Your Heart,” a documentary about singer-songwriters Raine Maida (of the group Our Lady Peace) and Chantal Kreviazuk, who comprise the duo Moon Vs Sun.
The two escape from L.A. for a songwriting retreat on the French island of Saint Pierre, only to be constantly rubbing each other the wrong way in the collaborative process. That Maida and Kreviazuk are also husband and wife does lend some extra stakes when they battle it out as co-writers: This might be the first marital-drama documentary that has, at its crux, irreconcilable differences over a pre-chorus.
“Can music save their love?” asks the tagline for the film, making it clear that the doc’s creators consider the unflinching portrayal of squabbling between its two wedded principals to be its greatest feature, not a flaw. The ultimate outcome of scenes that sometimes make the couple look like divorce court contenders is not really in doubt. “I’m Going to Break Your Heart” glides along a little too easily toward its preordained happy ending in the last stretch, but it’s quite bracing to see just how willing the two are to let the world in on some of their least flattering and most prickly moments. It’s as if “Once” generated a sequel, and it turned out to be a folk-movie-musical version of “Scenes from a Marriage.”
Another film that might come to mind, just for a passing moment or two, is “La La Land,” only because of the on-screen personas and frenemy chemistry of Maida and Kreviazuk. He’s very much a Ryan Gosling type, looking fairly inexpressive in comparison to his heart-on-her-sleeve female lead, and someone who’s willing to go to battle over points of personal integrity. (The couple’s biggest fight in the movie comes when she innocently suggests that one of the alternatives they’re considering for a song-in-progress would be more “for the masses,” which triggers a deep, peeved funk on his part.) She’s the far more outgoing and more beguilingly needy of the two. Watching Kreviazuk’s face light up with a kind of smitten shock every time her partner lightens up on the withholding and offers her a compliment or sweet nothing is the kind of thing that really could break your heart.
The first two-thirds of the movie take place in a wintry Saint Pierre, with moods constantly shifting like the weather, as the two take what is apparently their first extended break from their three kids in almost 20 years of marriage. Their marriage counselor has suggested it as a healing getaway, but the isolation, combined with the pressure to come up with their first real set of joint songs ever, turns out to be more of a burden than a balm. An hour in, they return to southern California and another counseling session, where they air their fresh gripes with their therapist — whose suggestion that they engage in an extended eye-gazing session is a quick fix that isn’t entirely convincing in setting up the pleasant final stretch. As the film plays out with the couple and their band fruitfully recording at Rick Rubin’s Malibu studio complex, you may begin to wonder if all along their problems weren’t anything that couldn’t be solved by having more people around to help keep them from saying insensitive stuff.
For the purposes of film drama, of course, it’s great that they keep pushing each other’s buttons for as long as they do back on that snowy isle. To the movie’s ultimate benefit, some of those argumentative scenes almost seem too good to be true. Could they possibly forget there’s a crew hanging out as they inflict minor wounds upon each other’s egos in the course of the creative process? Apparently they really could, as there’s not much doubt to be had that Kreviazuk isn’t faking how hurt she is when she feels shot down by the man she considers her “mentor” as well as husband. Maida is harder to read, though the cameras try to, anyway, following him when he has to escape for a sullen walk on the beach or visit to a local church.
The movie’s trick — or maybe it’s just a reality about the real or illusory powers of music to provide catharsis — is in rounding out the running time with some extended studio performances powerful enough to make you believe that love has conquered all, even debates about song structure. And it’s hard to begrudge the film too much for the sight of happy faces in the clinch when so much of what preceded is determined to act as a tonic for all those self-produced music docs that dole out their warts far more sparingly.