Friday, August 20, 2010

"Music and Lyrics" (2007)

There are two ways to watch the movie Music and Lyrics. The first is to treat as crass commercialization of romance. This is made particularly easy, as neither the screenwriters nor the actors wander anywhere beyond the strictly comfortable for this venture. The second way, as I prefer, is to view it as a labor of love. Despite the stock characters and hackneyed plot, there is a simple underlying principles that defines this movie: those who made it have a deep and abiding affection for music. This is what makes this film bearable and indeed enjoyable.

Let’s first speak of the plot and the characters. Neither will take long. Hugh Grant plays his stock “perpetually droll man-child,” in the form of a fading star from the early 90’s band, who spends his life singing at high school reunions. He is paired with Drew Barrymore’s stock “slightly neurotic yet empowered lady,” in the form of a disaffected English major who is found to be a natural lyricist. As can be readily predicted, they are forced together for an arbitrary yet urgent reason, quickly grow to love each other, fall apart for some equally superficial reason, and inevitably get back together when he makes a spectacle of himself. If we’re lucky, we might even get a Profession of Love in a Stadium cliché, which is always fun to laugh at (that’s assuming, of course, that you’re not the type to wipe away tears on such occasions, in which case you really ought to see a doctor about that).

Anyone who goes to this movie expecting high art and social drama deserves to be certified. This is not even a movie for those expecting high-quality cinema: there is one scene, set in a coffee shop, where the editing is so abysmal that our family started counting how many errors there were between shots. Yet I enjoyed this film, and I would even recommend it to others.

Music and Lyrics begins on an absolutely delightful note: a parody of all those awful music videos of the pop bands of our childhood. If you haven’t seen it, you really must. It is an affectionate parody, gently mocking the sheer ridiculousness of the sets and costumes and acting, but doing its best to replicate the infectious joy and sincerity of it. Likewise, the depictions of the music industry are just biting enough to constitute satire, while treating the music itself with respect. The scenes involving the pop star Cora Corman (a sexualized teen singer who advertises her karmic bona fides) are particularly delightful, and Hugh Grant is perfectly suited for the passing remarks about her “Buddhism in a thong” approach to performance. Yet even in these scenes there is an undercurrent of affection for the music on display.

The screenwriters may not have spared the time, but the musicians seemed to spare no expense. The main theme (“A Way Back Into Love”) is presented on many occasions, starting as a single melody line plucked out on a piano, then with the incremental addition of instruments and vocals, with the lyrics revealed in bits and pieces throughout the movie, then finally in the chorus at the end. Even the “Pop!” parody songs appear as the genuine article: they may not be worthy of the Beatles, but they are certainly what we might have expected from the Backstreet Boys or (Heaven help us) the Jonas Brothers. The music is not great, but it doesn’t have to be: it is well-suited for the movie's purposes.

The characters are developed only to the extent that the actors have been developing them for their entire careers, and the plot is especially perfunctory towards the end. Yet this is a film that will make you smile and laugh. It conveys a profound sense of joy, and an abiding affection towards the phenomenon of pop music – music that all of us at one point enjoyed and of which we all later repented. It is a universal human experience, to wince at one’s own insipidity, but this movie defangs that experience by turning it to a source of laughter. As John Adams once said (and this from a notoriously staid, almost Puritanical figure), “I cannot contemplate human affairs without either laughing or crying. I choose to laugh.”

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