Friday, June 29, 2018

Hearts Beat Loud: The healing power of music

Hearts Beat Loud (2018) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rated PG-13, and much too harshly, for fleeting profanity and mild drug references

By Derrick Bang

Unexpected little charmers, such as this one, are the reason I love this job.

The core premise has been can’t-miss ever since Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney made the immortal suggestion — “Hey, kids; let’s put on a show!” — back in 1939’s Babes in Arms.

Whatever else might be happening in their lives, Frank (Nick Offerman) and his daughter
Sam (Kiersey Clemons) always experience joy when making music together
The format shifted a bit over time, these days generally attaching itself to gentle relationship dramas, where a shared love of music paves the way toward love, reconciliation and/or inner peace. Recent examples include director John Carney’s delightful trio: Sing Street (2016), Begin Again (2013) and the incomparable Once (2007).

Director/co-scripter Brett Haley’s Hearts Beat Loud definitely belongs in their company.

Haley has quietly been building an indie career characterized by unabashedly sentimental dramas such as I’ll See You in My Dreams and The Hero: gentle little films no doubt mocked by condescending viewers who sprinkle cynicism on their breakfast cornflakes, but which are adored by those of us seeking relief from lowest-common-denominator Hollywood bombast.

Haley makes films about people: folks you might know, and certainly would like to know. And if they happen to have an artistic streak, well, that just makes them more interesting.

Frank Fisher (Nick Offerman) owns a one-man record store in Red Hook, Brooklyn: a relic more than a generation out of date, whose shelves are lined solely with vinyl. Customers are a long-vanished species; the shop is approaching the final few seconds of the last track on Side B. Frank has just informed his landlady, Leslie (Toni Collette), that he’s packing it in.

The decision kills him, because music has long been in his blood. He met his wife while both performed in clubs: She sang, he played backup. She’s years deceased, under tragic circumstances that Haley and Marc Basch’s script reveals cleverly, subtly, delicately.

Their daughter Sam (Kiersey Clemons) is the second apple of Frank’s eye: an ambitious, hard-working student with plans for medical school. She has thus far spent the waning days of her final summer, before college, cracking the books in an effort to get a head start in what she knows will be a highly competitive environment.

It’s a double loss for Frank: his shop and his daughter.

But she has grown up enjoying “jam seshes” with him — they’re both accomplished musicians and amateur songwriters — although such spontaneous interludes have become less frequent of late. She prefers to study, prefers to spend time with girlfriend Rose (Sasha Lane), prefers not to acknowledge that she’s masking her own pain over the impending change, by pretending to have become “too cool” for her father.

But it’s an act, and he knows it. He also knows how to penetrate that barrier, with a blend of guile and good-natured joshing. She relents; he grabs a guitar while she hits a keyboard, computer and Launchpad. They find a collaborative groove, refine it, expand it, overdub it. During a montage deftly assembled by Haley and editor Patrick Colman, they build a song from the ground up.

The experience is exhilarating, both for Frank — and Sam, even if she won’t admit it — and for us, as viewers. He’s overjoyed, insists they should do it again, maybe produce an EP or album. But that’s pushing too hard; she balks, and the momentum is lost.

Disappointed but defiant, Frank borrows a note from the younger generation, and impulsively does what all of today’s wannabe musicians do.

The results are unexpected.

These musical hijinks take place against several other interpersonal dynamics. Frank also struggles to cope with his mother, Marianne (Blythe Danner), whose slide into dementia is accompanied by a proclivity for shoplifting. Trouble is, she gets caught. Repeatedly.

On top of which, Frank senses — but can’t be sure — that his business relationship with Leslie could develop into something more intimate. With all these sorrows to drown, he spends a fair amount of time in a neighborhood tavern run by best friend Dave (Ted Danson), a 1960s throwback who waxes poetic about Woodstock and “good grass.”

As for Sam, she mourns the impending separation from Rose, who — in turn — knows that she’s about to lose the love of her life: a perfect couple who found each other at the wrong time.

Sounds like great material for a song, yes? Sam has a notebook filled with poetic stanzas and unfinished lyrics. So does Frank, dating back to courtship, marriage, fatherhood and the pain of what followed.

Where all this leads ... well, that would be telling.

Offerman is note-perfect as a mildly disheveled bear of a man you’d expect to be growly, but who emerges as cuddly: sensitive, understated and patient. And grieving, but only subtly: We see it in his eyes, and occasionally in his quietly resigned stance, but he never talks about it. At least, not directly.

He’s the world’s coolest father — we’d all kill for a parent this kind and understanding — and also a helluva musician. (If Offerman doesn’t truly know how to play guitar and drums, he sure as hell fakes it well.)

Clemons, an extraordinarily busy actress/musician on the rise, smoothly conveys the emotional maelstrom confronting Sam: the agony of too much change — of childhood being left behind forever — tempered by excitement over impending independence, and the next chapter of her life. Clemons moves with an easygoing grace, and knows precisely how to use her killer smile. She also has lovely vocal chops, which this film puts to excellent use.

She’s nicely paired with Lane, as the devoted and poignantly vulnerable Rose: so completely in love, and so painfully aware of the looming heartbreak.

Danson is a hoot in a role that hearkens back to his years on TV’s Cheers; he still has Sam Malone’s behind-the-bar moves. If his handling of Dave here feels superficial and breezily indifferent, that’s deceptive; the guy has hidden depths.

Collette’s Leslie is perky, charming and sensitive to Frank’s sorrows. She approaches her role coyly, with an impish grin that suggests much but leaves us wondering, just as Frank remains uncertain.

Danner, sadly, doesn’t get enough screen time to build Marianne beyond her superficial status as “another of Frank’s problems.”

The film’s other major presence is heard but not seen: the score and buoyant songs by Keegan Dewitt (who also handled the music on Haley’s earlier features). I’m always enchanted when the “made up” songs in a film are as good, if not better, than the actual folk/pop material of a given era; that’s definitely the case with this film’s four original tunes, from the poignant ballad “Blink (One Million Miles)” to the effervescent title song.

Hearts Beat Loud is one of those sparkling little films that keeps a smile on your face. Catch it quickly, before it’s buried beneath the deluge of summer popcorn flicks.

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