Terrence Malick’s Song To Song Explores The Hard-Core Ambitions Of Artistic Dreams

A contemporary love story among musicians.

Though renowned for visually arresting storytelling, filmmaker Terence Malick has always been drawn to that most classic subject of all:  love – especially love that mirrors or cuts through life’s illusions, and with Song To Song, he continues a career that began with the dark romance between two 1950s Midwestern killers on the run in Badlands; explored the early days of America through Captain Smith and Pocahontas’ affair in The New World; and twined the overwhelming emotions of parental love with a story of creation in The Tree Of Life.

Terrence Malick with Ryan Gosling during the filming of Song To Song.

Song To Song is Malick’s ninth feature film, a new love story set against and inspired by the Austin, Texas rock and roll scene, the film follows four interconnected lovers as they tumble and clash in both their roller coaster musical careers and rule-breaking intimate lives. Amid a world driven by youth, passion, lust, drugs and creativity, the story hones in on one couple who find in each other a way to bust through all the wild distractions of our modern lives and seek satisfaction in a new way.

Song To Song’s love story unfolds in today’s America and among those chasing that most contemporary and perhaps maddest of dreams:  the rock star life.  Can one be a free, unfettered artist in today’s music scene – and lead an improvised, in-the-moment life, moving from one thrill to another, without ending up broken-hearted?

Filmed throughout Austin and at its world-famed music festivals by three-time Academy Award winner Emmanuel “Chivo” Lubezki, Song To Song features unexpected performances from some of contemporary cinema’s biggest stars including Michael Fassbender, Ryan Gosling, Rooney Mara and Natalie Portman – as well as a multi-generational array of musicians including Patti Smith, Lykke Li, the Black Lips, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Iggy Pop, John Lydon and more.

Rooney Mara is Faye, an aspiring songwriter who likes playing with fire and is wrestling with her creative future while sampling a variety of lovers; Michael Fassbender is Cook, a controlling and sexually voracious music producer who can make people’s dreams come true; Ryan Gosling is BV, Cook’s protégé and rising songwriting star who falls hard for Faye while being professionally betrayed by Cook; and Natalie Portman is Rhonda, a struggling waitress who sees Cook as the solution to her family’s financial problems.  The couples will tangle and tumble in a love quadrangle that nearly upends them – then moves them toward a new understanding of their lives and each other.

Into The Heart Of Austin’s Rock and Roll Scene With Terrence Malick

Austin, Texas is a city of contrasts – where laid-back, bohemian vibes collide with the hard-core ambitions of artistic dreams, and where relaxed Texans have had to confront gentrification and corporatization, even as the music industry itself has shifted seismically.  Dubbed “the live music capital of the world,” and sometimes known as “alt-Nashville,” Austin is duly famed for its cavalcade of music festivals, clubs, dive bars and honkytonks.  But it is equally known for its masses of aspiring musical talents chasing an undefined, but ideally uninhibited, life of creative freedom, be it in the country, folk, blues, new wave, punk, Tejano or rock scenes.

It is that side of Austin that filmmaker Terrence Malick zeroes in on in Song To Song.  He has had the desire to make a contemporary love story among musicians for some time, and Austin became the backdrop to a story that cycles between concerts that lift one ever higher … and those moments after the show ends, when all that clarity and euphoria evaporate and musicians are left alone with themselves again, anticipating the next high.

In the early phases, Malick titled the film WEIGHTLESS, based on a quotation from Virginia Woolf’s novel The Waves, an encapsulation of a central dilemma of the modern world, which was an underlying inspiration:

How can I proceed now, I said, without a self,weightless and visionless, through a world weightless, without illusion?

The couples in Song To Song live in a realm that mirrors the quotation, where identity can’t be pinned down, where they are supposedly free to shift constantly in moods and desires without anchor.  Yet they also seem to feel lost, adrift.  The core of the group is Faye, the young songwriter who yearns to leap fearlessly into life and love, to give herself fully over to her art.  Even so, she keeps wondering why she still feels so disconnected, so unsure of what the freedom she is chasing really means.  Can she touch something real – and how?

Malick first started talking to his producing team of Sarah Green, Nicolas Gonda and Ken Kao about the film that would become Song To Song while making Tree Of Life.   They were all exhilarated by the idea of making an Austin-based love story.

“Austin became a great microcosm for this story, these characters and Terry’s ideas,” says Gonda.  “It’s a place where artists and free spirits have been drawn to for decades but it’s experiencing such rapid growth and visible changes. It attracts people who don’t want to be put into a mold – it’s a place that can feel like a brand new beginning, though it also can’t escape the contradictions of our times.  That’s why I think these characters will be very relatable to people.  They’re each trying to make a life in Austin, and to make sense out of a world that can be exciting but also full of emptiness and uncertainty.  There’s this tug of war between how you can make a modern life yet stay true to who you are.”

Green adds her take: “To me this is the story of a tangled romantic quadrangle but also about the value of love and forgiveness.  Very much like the lives these characters are leading, the movie is fun, wild and extreme but then there’s this moment where things come to a head and the characters arrive at a deeper understanding of what they want.  When Rooney Mara’s character, Faye, says ‘I thought we could live song to song, kiss to kiss’ it’s a reflection of a kind of life many people feel they’d like to lead at one time, but then you realize that no matter how much you seek true freedom, free-fall isn’t the goal.”

Observes Kao: “I think this is really a film about self-discovery – and Austin is a the perfect place for these characters to find themselves.  It’s such a quickly growing city, it’s a great prism through which to see these characters also trying to grow.”

Perhaps no career has more highs in the moment than that of pop musicians caught up in the flow and adoration of public performances.  SONG TO SONG takes audiences into those moments, yet also illuminates what happens in the fraught spaces between performances.

Song To Son

“The characters are going from high to high,” notes Gonda.  “When they’re at music festivals, people are all coming together and it is non-stop energy.  But when the music stops and the festivals end, they are left with having to face themselves. Even with so many amazing distractions and temptations, they still have to confront the questions of what is the purpose and meaning of all this?”

Green, Gonda and Kao all see the film as a new chapter in Malick’s filmmaking journey – blending not only a strong narrative with beyond-words sensations but also combining playful dialogue with private inner monologues in ways that evoke the layered landscape of the heart.  Says Green: “Song To Song is a very active, fast-moving film.  There is an extraordinary intimacy in Terry’s choice to layer voice-over over the dialogue – so that you not only hear what the characters are saying, you hear what they are privately thinking as they say it.”

Gonda adds: “Terry has swung the pendulum from a very maximal style in Thin Red Line, New World and Tree Of Life to a style that can evoke the most intimate of emotions that we only feel in relationships.  Song To Song has a rhythm that is very contemporary, but it’s one of his most intimate films.”

For Kao, the way Malick keeps expanding and exploring is an inspiration.  “He’s still pushing himself, despite all his accomplishments,” he notes.  “This film has its own distinctive feeling to it and you see a continuing evolution in his film style.”

Song To Song is also his most overtly musical film.  Malick has always been passionate about music — and about the use of music, particularly classical music, from baroque to postmodern, as an inseparable partner to visual imagery.  But in Song To Song, popular music is the thread that knits the characters together. From the start, Malick started looking for ways to integrate Austin’s non-stop parade of performers, from striving local bands to icons passing through town at the big festivals, into the characters he was creating.

Even as the film was being cast, Malick and his small, nimble crew began shooting at Austin’s three largest festivals:  Austin City Limits Festival, inspired by the long-running PBS live music show of the same name, which runs every summer; South by Southwest, the massive (and massively influential) multi-media festival featuring music, movies and interactive arts that has taken place in March since 1987; and the indie-oriented Fun Fun Fun Fest, known for discovering emerging talent.

“Shooting at these festivals in a very freestyle, spontaneous way allowed us to give people the experience of what it’s like to actually be backstage before a show or right in front of the stage during the performance.  It’s a high-energy experience — it’s loud and it’s in your face,” says Green.  “Capturing that festival atmosphere is one of the things that makes this movie uniquely contemporary.”

As the production began attending festivals, they also began amassing a wide-ranging musical cast to join with the film’s Oscar-winning actors.

“We started reaching out to see which musicians might be interested in interacting with our characters – and we were delighted by how many said yes,” Green explains.  “It’s a very spontaneous kind of world and that worked incredibly well with how Terry likes to shoot.  We’ve been working with a very small crew for a long time now so we could just slip in and slip out of these backstage worlds.  Our lean production style leant itself beautifully to the innate changeability and chaos of music festivals.”


Adds Gonda: “A remarkable alchemy happened when we started putting our cast together with the musicians.  Their energy became a catalyst, pushing everyone to be more real.”

For the cast, soaking in all the dreams and natural wonders and brisk development of Austin was an infinite source of inspiration.

Says Natalie Portman: “Austin has such a strong character, with all the music, the tech and film worlds, the outdoor vibe of the city and the way it feels sort of like an island in Texas. It was wonderful to shoot there and have the city really be a character in the film.”

Mara concurs:  “I loved, loved working in Austin. I had never been there before this movie and now I think about it all the time and miss it.”

Sums up Michael Fassbender:  “This was my first time in Austin and I really loved it — great city, great food, great music. Keep Austin Weird is the slogan of the city and they really try to do that.  The chance to hear so much live music was special – it was all fantastic to experience.”