I feel like I should start out by saying I like Brett Haley. I spend a lot of time, both in my writing and in person with people who put up with my endless movie rants, bemoaning the current Nice Movie Scare cinema is going through. And while it’s true that there have always been Nice Movies made for Nice People, it seems like the Hollywood landscape is scrambling right now to throw these things together and ship them into theaters as fast as possible. I guess we don’t have musicals anymore to take people’s minds off the fact that we’re literally about five seconds away from a Dr. Strangelove scenario every moment of every day (and no, Damien Chazelle doesn’t count because he’s a fucking sociopath who shouldn’t be allowed within five hundred feet of a film set – more on him later, if you can believe it). So we have these light Nice Comedies for Nice People to watch. But it’s true, Brett Haley actually stands out from the pack by pure virtue of him seeming to enjoy making films and have genuine empathy and respect for his own stories and characters. He’s not cynical in his filmmaking, something surprisingly rare for people in his position. His I’ll See You In My Dreams and The Hero, while both suffering from an almost unbearable Niceness, both had their hearts in the right place. The easiest contrast to this would be my vote for Worst Picture of 2017, Lake Bell’s I Do…Until I Don’t, another film from a director I like that nonetheless drowned in its own cuteness to the point where I couldn’t tell whether or not she was fucking with me. Never a good sign.
Hearts Beat Loud, on the other hand, is something else entirely, full of situations and characters that feel as real and as lived in as anything Hal Ashby or Michael Cimino would’ve come up with in their primes. The comparisons stop there, but it’s not exactly like Haley’s going for their aesthetics anyway. What he does seem to be after is a certain melancholy otherness to his worlds, feeling at once as real as a memory and as fanciful as someone’s description of a dream. The problem comes from this film, at times, feeling just as tedious as that latter scenario can sometimes be. But he comes by it honestly which, again, is more than can be said of most indie filmmakers working right now.
But I feel like I need to be honest and come clean about a couple of things right up front here. The first is that there is really nothing that will bore the shit out of me faster than a mid-50s white guy in a flannel shirt “jamming” on guitar. That applies equally to the real world as it does to its portrayal on film. The second is that, in general, I kind of have no time whatsoever for watching people play music. Sorry. It just turns me to stone. I cannot get into it. I grew up going to basement punk shows in Philly and the Lehigh Valley and I think I got spoiled by all the side details of what it meant to go to all those shows. The music, while often great, was never really the draw for me. Nor was the “scene,” a thing I have heard all my life is a thing that exists but to me always seemed like just another meaningless social hierarchy that didn’t have a spot for me. It was always about the full experience, the smell of hair gel and cigarettes, things like that. So for an aging punk (well, okay, I don’t know if I was ever fully “punk” but I was certainly a fucking weirdo who looked like a punk for quite a while – and by the way, when I say “aging” you need to understand that everyone at the “top” of the meaningless social hierarchy that is Moviejawn is elderly. We are old people. That Pulp song “Help The Aged” is about us)…wait, where was I going with this? Oh, right. For an aging punk, the idea of sitting down for almost two hours watching an aging hipster moan and groan about how hard life is raising his healthy amazing cool as shit teenage daughter while owning his own record store in Red Hook just doesn’t exactly fill me with a whole lot of empathy. But this is where it comes in handy that Haley does feel for his characters. Is this making sense?
Let me try it this way – the film opens with Nick Offerman’s record store owner Frank first acting like a total asshole to probably the only customer who’s come into his store that day, then mansplaining Songs, Ohioto his landlord / possible love interest Leslie (Toni Collette) in what has to be the most boring conversation since Han Solo talked to the Imperial border guard in Solo. Oh, and that’s after we meet him in the opening shot rocking out to a YouTube video of Jeff Tweedy, the man responsible for creating arguably the most annoying and emotionally vacant body of work on planet Earth. Seriously, they’re worse than Phish. But so we open there, and eventually, the film works its way all the way out to the finish line where Frank…mansplains Merriweather Post Pavilion to Leslie. Jeeeeeez, this movie. And by the way, he’s telling her all about this record she’s never heard (or even heard of before) right after she buys Dig Me Out. I can’t keep up.
Thankfully, it’s the journey more than the destination that makes the film work at all. We have Ted Danson back behind the bar and philosophizing about the nature of love and change for the second time this year after doing exactly that on The Good Place. We have the story of the young love between Frank’s daughter (Kiersey Clemons) and a girl she meets at an art gallery. We have Frank and Leslie’s romance happening in fits and starts throughout. And Frank’s mother (Blythe Danner) who is constantly in need of bail money as a result of a shoplifting habit. All great actors doing great work. The only obstacle in the way of it all adding up to a great movie is that as each segment leads into the next, you feel just a little twinge of something approaching disappointment, as all these characters and sequences could easily fill their own individual features. It’s the bumping up against one another that never quite hangs together. In fact, I had the feeling throughout that Haley would do great with a looser structure, maybe even just a plotless hangout movie. Toni Collette singing a Chairlift song at karaoke. The natural rapport between Danson and Offerman. The girls riding their bikes down to Coney Island for the night. All engaging, all well-crafted scenes. It’s the main plot that gets in the way. In fact, the ease and enthusiasm with which Haley directs these little sequences make the actual arc of the narrative feel like an afterthought by comparison. And no amount of name-dropping the likes of Iron & Wine or Spoon or WFMU is gonna change that. But about that plot.
That would be the efforts put in by Frank to convince Sam to put off going to college so they can start a band. It’s weird that I’ve barely touched on the musical aspects of the film yet, since easily a third of the running time is devoted to simply watching Frank and Sam play music. Seriously, three of their songs play out in real time twice during the movie. Maybe even more. And I gotta say, the most confusing thing about this entire piece of the story is that the title song, “Hearts Beat Loud”, the song ostensibly written by Sam that gets the main thrust of the plot going, is actually (here in the real world) a cover of some song by a guy named Keegan DeWitt, who, aside from being the guy who wrote that song, is also Haley’s composer. So there’s that. Maybe it’s just me, but it’s a little like if PTA wrote a movie about a fictional band and that band’s “original” songs were just Radiohead covers. It blurs the line of acceptability just a little, not because Keegan DeWitt is a household name on par with Radiohead (or… maybe he is? I literally know nothing about music – okay, that’s not true, but for the sake of declaring one way or the other whether I do or I don’t, let’s stick with I don’t, at least as far as these things go) but because, upon learning this fact, it just seems like he made a movie to promote his goofy friend’s goofy songs. And yes, the songs are good in the same way Haley’s films are good. They’re upbeat (for the most part), harmless (for the most part) and just “nice.” So make of that what you will. Here’s what I make of it: it’s kind of annoying.
But here’s where we arrive at the Damien Chazelle stuff I threatened earlier. What you don’t want to be is the alternate indie universe Chazelle (look, Chazelle is mainstream, just accept that shit), since that still amounts to being a whiny white guy whining about how no one understands the very particular niche artform / music / movies you like quite the way you do. And it gets even murkier when the weird, obscure, totally not in any way mainstream thing you like is…jazz? Fucking jazz? Really? Haley, here, takes that a step further and just goes headlong into “music” being the thing he’s focused on. It’s a bit of a High Fidelity / PattiCake$ / Be Kind Rewind mashup that ends up being too much and too little to fully sustain itself on its own momentum. I still think Haley has a truly great film in him somewhere, something closer in tone to the Ashby stuff he clearly idolizes. For as episodic as his films can be, it would be interesting to see him simply give in and let that be his focus. Let the pictures breathe a little more. I’ll still keep watching, since the other side of that coin is that I don’t think he really has the energy to waste film or anything. He’s not gonna make a bad movie. But making Nice Movies really only gets you so far.