Hearts Beat Loud
Edwin Arnaudin: Brett Haley’s father-daughter band dramedy Hearts Beat Loud carries on the music-making tradition of John Carney’s delightful trilogy (Once; Begin Again; Sing Street) and last year’s underseen songwriting-as-marriage-therapy indie Band Aid. Does the film find ways to freshen up this subgenre or is it more of a broken record?
Bruce Steele: I’d call it a very successful cover record. That is, it’s something we’ve heard before by different artists, but this new version is fresh and energetic and appealing. It could well be the last of its very specific subgenre: The dramedy set at a vinyl records store, this time in the Red Hook neighborhood of Brooklyn, run by solo dad Frank. I thought Frank was a perfect lead single for Nick Offerman, who usually only gets B-sides. (Too many record metaphors?)
Edwin: I had to wait for the turntable to stop spinning to recover from all that wordplay, but well done! The intersection of digital and physical media grants the film a strong modern-day relevancy and just the right amount of nostalgia. I’m also with you on Offerman, the latest perennial supporting player to be elevated by Haley to lead status, following I’ll See You In My Dreams Blythe Danner (who’s also strong here as Frank’s dementia-suffering mother) and The Hero’s Sam Elliott. Why did it take so long for Ron Swanson to get this opportunity?
Bruce: Offerman doesn’t fit any Hollywood leading man templates, but he’s a perfect everyman for this sweet little indie. Frank’s comfort in his record store is established in a nicely comical opening scene, and his affection for his daughter Sam (Kiersey Clemons), who’s about to head off to L.A. for college, is palpable. Frank just seems like a fun guy you’d want to know — although he seems to have only a couple friends in the movie.
Edwin: Part of his small support circle may be due to his widower status and possibly not wanting to get too close to others, lest they leave him, too. His relationship with bartender chum Dave (Ted Danson) very well may not extend beyond the drinking premises, but he appears genuinely interested in sparking something with his landlord Leslie (Toni Collette).
Bruce: Given Collette’s role in Hereditary, Frank might want to do a background check on Leslie. No, seriously, I love that Collette can bend her tough-but-fragile persona into so many different configurations. She’s an anchoring presence here, while Danson breezily offers up bartender-appropriate aphorisms that are both eye-rollers and on target to the movie’s themes of balancing dreams and obligations. The real revelation here is Clemons, an actress in her early 20s with a long TV resume and a few movie roles but new to me. She’s terrific.
Edwin: Clemons won me over in Dope and Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising, but gets to show her range here as a believable, intelligent teen who loves her father yet yearns for something beyond her Red Hook existence. As for the casting of Sasha Lane as Sam’s love interest Rose, it felt more like Haley saying, “Let’s see what the girl from American Honey can do with more structure.” For me, the answer is, “Not much."
Bruce: I spared myself American Honey, but Lane seemed adorable enough for Sam to crush out on. And I don’t want to spoil it, but their relationship inspires one of my favorite lines of the year so far late in the movie, so I was happy with both young women. And Clemons’ singing is fine. Google tells me Keegan DeWitt’s heartfelt and bouncy title song actually came before the movie and in part inspired it. I hope someone has funds squirreled away for a Best Song Oscar campaign.
Edwin: That line and Frank’s response when one of his musical heroes surprises him in the shop are two smart choices that further separate this charmer from the usual Hollywood pap. And I’d go as far to say that Clemons’ singing is very good, bordering on great. Offerman’s more homely vocals are a nice complement and it’s fun to watch him traverse a range of instruments. More impressive is the joy in their songwriting process — amplified by Haley’s Carney-esque editing — and performances, even when some of the material touches on difficult subject matter.
Bruce: “Difficult” is relative here, though, because other than the loss of mom when Sam was a baby, the traumas here are major but manageable. There’s the record store’s precarious existence, father-daughter tensions, young lovers’ separation anxiety, Frank’s bungling his friendships and, of course, the tease of Spotify exposure for Frank and Sam’s unplanned musical collaboration. Given some of the dark places indie films often go, I was perfectly satisfied to visit this less-challenging world populated by genuine, well-meaning people who may leave little or no indentation on the wall of human history. Like most of us.
Edwin: The everyman focus is pretty consistent across Haley’s films and is certainly refreshing in the current indie milieu you describe. Like these other protagonists — even Elliott’s washed-up actor in The Hero — they're mainly going about their lives, figuring things out while enjoying a modicum of public attention that reignites a personal passion. With Elliott’s lead role opportunity springing from his involvement in Danner’s spotlight moment and now Offerman’s arising from Elliott’s, does that mean we can expect a Haley/Danson collaboration in a year or two?
Bruce: Maybe so. I’d be thrilled to have someone challenge Danson a little, since his character here isn’t much different from his role as the prancing D.A. in Body Heat 37 years ago — and most of his roles in between. Not that I’ve ever really minded. I’d kind of like Haley to collaborate with Hearts songwriter DeWitt (of the band Wild Club) on a full-on musical. The songs here are so good. They could surely out-do The Greatest Showman, don’t you think?
Edwin: No contest. I’m curious about the conception of these songs, how much teamwork was involved between Haley and DeWitt and the extent to which the finished versions impacted the screenplay. On the receiving end of the project, it feels like the two work smoothly together — so, yes, bring on the proper musical.
Bruce: By my count, there are just three original songs in the movie, and Google tells me two were DeWitt on his own and one was DeWitt writing with a Wild Club bandmate. But three songs is plenty when they’re new and so smartly introduced in their fictional composition scenes, and lovingly reprised with some variation.
Edwin: A quick glance at the soundtrack reveals those different editions and other DeWitt originals and instrumentals, with Mitski’s “Your Best American Girl” — and somehow not Tweedy’s “Summer Noon,” which receives a similar diagetic inclusion — as the lone curated song.
Bruce: Bottom line, if you like the music and people in the trailer, you’ll like the movie. It’s not out to reinvent the wheel but it provides a smooth ride and gets where it’s going. (A bike metaphor this time, since bicycles figure significantly in the story.) I really enjoyed the journey and might even give it another spin. And thus I have come full circle with the vinyl record wordplay as well. I’m giving this record an A-minus, Mr. Clark. It’s got a great beat and you can dance to it.
Edwin: Agreed. I think it’s Haley’s best film yet and wisely incorporates the pleasures of making, listening to and talking about music to help step above his respectable but somewhat limited predecessors. A-minus for me as well and it likewise has me chanting “encore."
Grade: A-minus. Rated PG-13. Starts June 29 at the Fine Arts Theatre
(Photos: Gunpowder & Sky)