Sonic Cinema

Sounds, Visions and Insights by Brian Skutle

Music & Lyrics

Grade : A- Year : 2007 Director : Running Time : Genre :
Movie review score

It’s not hard to watch the trailer to “Music & Lyrics” and not think it’ll be a cute romantic comedy, and another notch in the box-office belts of success for stars Hugh Grant and Drew Barrymore. It just gives off that vibe, with the Valentine’s Day release date adding to its’ cache as a typical audience crowd-pleaser.

But just like a good pop song, “Music & Lyrics” has a way of sneaking up on you and just making you feel good. Sure, it follows the romantic comedy formula to a “t,” but many of the great ones of the genre have anyway since even the silent era- just deal with it folks. It’s all about alchemy- that special convergence of a good story with engaging actors who match the material, and maybe even bring something unexpected to it in the process. It’s a rare rom-com happening in an era where, well, what audiences want seems to be a bit elusive for Hollywood to grasp (for every unexpected hit, there’s at least one obvious smash that negates it). Think “Pretty Women,” “Jerry Maguire,” “50 First Dates,” “The Wedding Singer,” “Failure to Launch,” “The 40 Year-Old Virgin,” “What Women Want,” “While You Were Sleeping,” “Four Weddings and a Funeral,” “Wedding Crashers,” “Keeping the Faith,” “How to lose a Guy in 10 Days,” and “Love Actually.” What all of these films have in common is a high-concept idea that’s fully explored, rooted in real feeling, and brought to the screen by actors able to bring their own distinctive spins on the characters, and make the material their own. It’s just the reason- albeit a simplistic one- that the movies we watch over again are watched over again- they bring something honest to the table that just resonates with people.

Watching “Music & Lyrics,” I was reminded of a line from Cameron Crowe’s “Almost Famous” when one of Stillwater’s “Band-Aids” Sapphire (Faruza Balk) tells lead guitarist Richard Hammond (Billy Crudup) of the new generation of groupies, “They don’t even know what it is to be a fan. To love some silly little song so much that it hurts.” I’ve never forgotten that line, because, well, is there anyone who can really think of a better definition of what it means to be a music fan? In “Music & Lyrics,” which only follows “Dreamgirls” in my opinion among the best recent films about the music business after “Famous,” writer-director Marc Lawrence (best known as a writer and director on many recent Sandra Bullock vehicles, including “Miss Congeniality” and “Two Weeks Notice” (also with Grant)) echoes the same sentiment in a line Sophie (Barrymore) says to former pop idol Alex Fletcher (Grant) as he argues against having to do an encore at one of many amusement park gigs he does to pay the bills. I buy it- I also buy the sly digs at contemporary music Lawrence hurls throughout the film, but we’ll talk about that later.

Apart from being about Hugh Grant and Drew Barrymore- who comes to water his plants, but then becomes his lyricist on the song he’s writing for current pop idol Cora (Haley Bennet skewers Britney and Christina with knowing wit and vacuity)- falling in love (more on that later), it’s also Lawrence’s ode to the joys of pop music. Not the hollow, processed hackjobs that pass as pop now (though to be fair, artists with genuine ability do emerge- I’ll admit to being a closeted Mandy Moore fan), but the hook and lyric-driven work of real songwriters and performers from the ’80s and ’90s (the early ’90s, at least) where the music- however cheesy the synth sounds, however machinized the drums sounded- was actually written with some feeling, not put together in a loop machine. Barrymore’s Sophie has a great piece of dialogue early on in her professional relationship with Alex where she talks about why lyrics are so important to a song, equating it to love. Whereas the music- or the hook- is the physical attraction that we’re immediately drawn to, the lyrics are where we really get to know the person- the conversations we have where we peel back the layers to really get down to who the other person is. Soppy? Sure, but has there been such an apt and honest metaphor about how love happens in a movie like this? Can’t think of one off the top of my head.

Both Grant and Barrymore bring their A-games. For Grant, it’s a reminder of why he was so appealing to people in “Four Weddings and a Funeral,” and has since charmed them with great work in “Love Actually” and “About a Boy” in between some more middling efforts (the less said about “Nine Months” the better, and he could’ve been so much better in “American Dreamz”). His performance as a pop idol happy to be remembered, rejuvinated to be writing again after ten years, and floored by the warm and resiliant spirit he sees in Sophie, ranks up with his best.

Same goes with Barrymore, who- in all honesty- has rarely been this adorable and endearing in the 25 years since “E.T.”. Of course, I haven’t seen “Ever After”- long on my list of films to see- and yes, I do remember “Charlie’s Angels” and “The Wedding Singer,” but look at her filmmography- the only film on that list that even invites such comparisons on a performance level is “50 First Dates,” where she played a woman forced to live the same day over and over after a car accident until a local guy (Adam Sandler) falls hard for her, and decides to help her move on. In “Music & Lyrics,” she also plays a woman living in the past, only now she’s hiding from the pain of an ill-advised love affair with her lit professor (Campbell Scott), who used the affair as a starting point for a novel that paints Sophie- renamed Sally Michaels- into a desparate woman who manipulates herself into an affair with her professor, who is engaged at the time. It’s a shadow over Sophie’s head she’s more than content to live with, but gradually, writing the song with Alex- titled “Way Back Into Love”- helps her leave it in the past and let her express what she’s been afraid to for so long. Her sister (“3rd Rock From the Sun’s” Kristen Johnston, very funny) has been good support for her, but Alex is who really turns her around, and wins her heart.

Ultimately, “Music & Lyrics” is a pop entertainment down to its’ core- funny, sweet, ultimately dispensible with a great hook (the film has at least three sure-fire Oscar contenders for best song, with the poppy, catchy “Pop! Goes My Heart” capturing the infectious joy of old-school pop music, the sweetly simple “Don’t Write Me Off” capturing the longing of a ballad about saying “I’m sorry” to the one you love, and the romantic “Way Back Into Love,” a note-perfect ballad about getting back on your feet after being run over in love). I doubt it’ll be much remembered as great cinema, but I can see myself looking back on it over the years…and cracking a smile for how it made me feel back in the day….just like a good pop song.

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