Review: The Song (dir. Richard Ramsey, 2014)

Review: The Song (dir. Richard Ramsey, 2014) September 27, 2014

songIf you went to The Song knowing nothing but the title and the fact that it’s loosely based on the life of King Solomon, then you might think that this film, about a country-music star and his struggles with fidelity, is based on the Song of Songs, also known as the Song of Solomon. And there is, indeed, a bit of that in there. But of all the texts ascribed to Solomon, the one that dominates this film, by far, is Ecclesiastes, easily the most existentialist book in the entire Bible. And that makes this film a little different from your typical “faith-based” movie.

A little different, but not too different. While the film is a bit more frank about the issues that can plague a marriage, and while the film does allow the jaded spirit of Ecclesiastes to come through on multiple occasions, the basic moral lessons and presuppositions that one expects from a “faith-based” film are still intact. And rather than follow the life of Solomon to its bitter end — with the protagonist far from God, his enemies turning against him and his son becoming a big jerk and squandering the family’s legacy — the film puts a more uplifting or redemptive spin on the story.

Writer-director Richard Ramsey makes especially potent use of Ecclesiastes in the opening prologue. The voice-over narration is provided by the protagonist, Jed King (the biblical Solomon was also named Jedidiah, as per II Samuel 12:25), but the images tells the story of how Jed’s parents met. His father — a country star not-so-subtly named David King, had an affair with another man’s wife, and when her husband learned of it and killed himself, David married the woman in question.

At one point David and the woman sit outside an abortion clinic (this film’s version of God killing their newborn first son, I suppose), and the narration from Ecclesiastes tells us, “The dead are happier than the living. But better than both is the one who has never been born.” That’s not the sort of note you’d normally expect a “faith-based” movie to start on, but the cynical malaise reflected in that quote is absolutely biblical, and its application to the modern story is surprisingly poignant.

Some of the film’s references to the biblical Solomon are kind of cute. When Jed falls in love with Rose Jordan (a nod to the “Rose of Sharon” in Song of Songs 2:1), he promises to build a chapel for their wedding, just as Solomon built the Temple to the Lord, and when Jed says the chapel will take a year to complete, Rose says she can’t wait that long — so the wedding takes place inside the chapel’s bare wooden frame. (Incidentally, while characters comment on the fact that Jed is a “religious” person — and while this is even contrasted with the mere “spirituality” of other characters — I can’t recall seeing any evidence within the film that he participates in a church or similar religious community. All he’s got is this private chapel.)

Other references are a lot more bizarre. When Jed first meets Rose, shortly before he plays a gig at her father’s vineyard, she is still getting over an ex-boyfriend, so Jed improvises a song in her honour in which he sings, “I ain’t gonna split you, baby. I’d rather give you up than watch you die.” This is a rather strange appropriation of the story in which Solomon settled a dispute between two prostitutes by ordering that the child they both claimed as theirs be split in half — thereby prompting the true mother to beg the king to let the baby live, even if it stayed with the other woman.

No matter. The music is actually fairly enjoyable for the most part, and Jed’s hipster beard gives him a suitably patriarchal look. The story steers in a darker direction, though, as Jed becomes a successful singer in his own right — and not simply famous for being his daddy’s son — and he is sent on tour with a female fiddler named Shelby Bale (whose name, I believe, is meant to be reminiscent of the Queen of Sheba, but I can never hear it without thinking of The SimpsonsShelbyville).

Jed spends less and less time at home, and the arguments between him and Rose when he does come home are strikingly realistic — and you can see, initially at least, how both sides have a point. But it isn’t too long before Jed seeks solace with someone who “gets” him as a musician, and he begins to make other lifestyle choices that take him further and further away from his roots. There is one problem, though: one of Jed’s songs was written specifically for Rose, and the crowd expects Jed and Shelby to keep on singing it as a duet on their tour. But Jed’s guilt gets in the way. (One cannot help but be reminded of how ‘I Walk the Line’, which Johnny Cash wrote for his first wife, became the title of a movie about his relationship with his second wife.)

As far as we know, adultery per se was never an issue for the biblical Solomon, who had hundreds of wives and concubines. But some of his wives led him into idolatry, so Jed’s unfaithfulness to Rose — a good Christian girl who expects her husband to believe in God — parallels Solomon’s unfaithfulness to Yahweh. There’s a certain cleverness to that, I suppose, but the scenes of Jed falling into a drug- and sex-induced haze don’t add anything new to what has long been a musician-biopic cliché.

I also could not help but wonder if the line from Ecclesiastes about finding pleasures meaningless might have had more impact if Jed had sampled things that we in the audience might take pleasure in, too. As it is, Jed’s drug dependency doesn’t seem terribly appealing, and as my friend Steven D. Greydanus has noted, Jed’s “fall” has none of the profundity that would justify the film’s use of this text.

One thing the movie has in its favour is its music, including spirited covers of Pete Seeger’s ‘Turn! Turn! Turn!’, a song based on Ecclesiastes 3:1-8, and romantic standards like ‘You Made Me Love You’. I had never heard of Alan Powell, who plays Jed King, or his band Anthem Lights before, but it’s not too hard to see why Noisetrade recommends their stuff to fans of Mumford & Sons and the like.

And Caitlin Nicol-Thomas is clearly having a blast as Shelby. It’s kind of remarkable, actually, that the sexually-charged song she sings when we first meet her character is included on the movie’s soundtrack album, which is presumably aimed at the same “faith-based” audience as the film. (I am vaguely reminded of how Tim Robbins refused to release an album for his satirical film Bob Roberts lest right-wingers take the songs and run with them. I wouldn’t be surprised if Christian teens got a naughty thrill from listening to that song on this otherwise “safe” album.)

The film’s production values are also a cut or two above what you might expect from a “faith-based” film these days. As always, the real shortcomings lie with the script. But I do want to give this film props for pushing, however gently, the boundaries of acceptable storytelling within the “faith-based” genre — and for basing its efforts on biblical passages that really don’t get enough attention within this milieu.

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  • Esther O’Reilly

    I thought it was spelled “Baal” — as in the false god Baal. First thing I thought they were trying to do with the bad girl’s name anyway.

    • “Bale” is definitely how the filmmakers spell it. But that’s a good catch — I hadn’t thought of that. The fact that the first two or three letters of her names (SHElby BAle) spell “Sheba” is probably not a coincidence either.