The movie August Rush, which debuted in November 2007, presents an uneven but inspiring tale of one sweet boy’s search for transcendence in a world of isolation and evil. The movie is not flawless, but its depiction of the power of music alone makes the film well worth watching.
The plot centers in two musicians (played ably by Keri Russell and Jonathan Rhys-Meyers) who chance upon one another, sleep together, and then lose touch completely with one another, despite the fact that they developed an incredible bond with one another (yes, in one brief night of passion; cue eye-rolling now). Russell’s character ends up pregnant and gives birth to a boy she never meets (you’ll have to watch the film to see why). The boy, “Evan Taylor” (played by Freddie Highmore of Lost in Neverland), ends up in a miserable home for boys. Sweet-spirited and mystically in touch with music, which he hears in even the most ordinary of sounds, he escapes from the home, ends up in New York, and embarks upon an adventure in which he trains himself to play a number of instruments at a lyrical level. The plot, as noted above, is a bit uneven and seems half-heartedly devoted to aping the story of Oliver Twist. In addition, some of the characters are less than plausible (Robin Williams shows up for several scenes of extended, and unneeded, histrionics).
These factors, and the act of fornication that drives the movie, are regrettable, but the movie has significant strengths as well. This is a film that quite simply is in love with music. As one who loves music (a rather broad statement), I resonated with its appreciation of harmonic beauty. The film, though not Christian, does also pick up on elements of common grace (though it would not call them such). Though little Evan is mired in a painful station in life, he finds beauty all around him, and maintains a disposition of hope and good cheer. It’s touching and challenging to watch. Most of us are far too swallowed up in our own selfish little existences to notice the beauty of the world, let alone to draw others into it through creation and celebration. The movie further succeeds in representing man realistically. He is not inherently satisfied with life as it is placed in front of him. No, he searches, and quests, and storms until he finds that which he deems transcendent. For Evan (or “August”, as he is renamed), the search ends with music, and also with a reunited family. These same ends bring transcendence to Evan’s parents; throughout their young lives, they wrestle with music as Jacob with the angel, and even when musically accomplished search for their other family members. There are two insights here: one, music elevates our earthly existence, and two, family does the same. Without these two goods, we are impoverished, living isolated, hopeless lives.
As Christians, we can resonate with these points. As I’ve very recently said (in writing on the movie Once, which carries some similar themes), music is imbued with transcendence. It is not cheap and small; it was given us by God to explore the moral and spiritual complexity of the universe. Though music is not God–and thus August Rush fatally overreaches in ascribing it such significance–yet we can say that music is a strange and magical thing. It is another language, a way of speaking about our lives and experiences and the truths and mysteries of this world that defies verbal communication. Music is not Transcendence, then, but it is a transcendent art form, capable of reaching across structures and thought patterns to grab hold of our soul and plunge us into pools of mysterious and beautiful reality. I love that August Rush believes this and seeks to communicate it. Though it strains in this endeavor, and misses the truth that music points us to–that God alone is Transcendence–yet it succeeds in capturing something of the essence of music. It is a beautiful film, and there are several scenes that moved me on a deeply emotional level and made me thankful that people take up cameras and attempt to capture aspects of human existence such as music.
The film, as noted, also shows a powerful belief in the family, and perhaps unintentionally, the nuclear family (dad, mom, child). This is a great insight as well. Though the family is also not ultimately transcendent, as August Rush might lead us to think, we may say that the family is perhaps God’s greatest earthly gift to us. It is simply impossible to enumerate the ways in which we are blessed on a daily, even hourly, basis by our families, even if they are not families of considerable health. Just having a family is immensely meaningful. The support that one has in being part of a family is not often consciously thought of but is precious beyond quantification. The film knows this, and shows us what it means for people to live without the structures of family–and most clearly to live without parents as an abandoned boy. One can have talent, and beauty, and joy, but without a family, one is ultimately unhappy. We Christians would of course go beyond this to say that God alone is our greatest need, that it is our most urgent necessity to enter into not an earthly family but a spiritual family that transcends this earth. On an earthly level, though, it is clear that God has structured the family to be the central part of our earthly existence. He has done so, I would argue, to show us something of the taste of familial perfection as expressed in the Trinity, the union of Father, Son, and Spirit, of which our families are but a type and shadow.
August Rush seeks true transcendence and fails to find it. But we may commend it for its pursuit and enjoy for its depiction of two of the choicest gifts God has given humanity: music and family. This movie shows us for the hundredth time that the people around us are not living atomistic lives, at least not all of the time. No, they are looking for something; something greater, something higher, something unified, something beautiful. Though they may discover numerous gifts of common grace in their search, we know that until they find the Christ, the salvation-giver, this search will prove fruitless in the end. We must be around them, then, to tell them where transcendence, and joy, and true hope may be found. It is not in music, but the One who created music; not in the family, but in the One who created the family; it is not found in the gift, but only in the Giver.