Songbird is available now on Curzon Home Cinema
Hollywood is outstanding at looking back and brilliant at looking forward. However, it often struggles to reflect the here and now, especially during times of crisis or social upheaval. A trait emphasised by Hollywoods struggle to find a voice during 9/11; walking a tightrope of storytelling vs public grief. During 2020 COVID 19 has created a similar dilemma, as deaths continue to rise globally and people sit isolated in lockdown. The question once again raised as to whether Hollywood should aim to reflect current events or avoid them. After all, is it topical to cover a crisis still unfolding? Or irresponsible to create entertainment from a global health crisis?
In my opinion, filmmaking has always aimed to challenge our vision of the world surrounding us. Whether that be through creating new and fantastical worlds, reflecting social concerns or the humour of our human interactions. Therefore, my one criticism of Hollywood would be that it has often been slow to reflect the world we live in. And while pandemics have formed part of Hollywoods disaster repertoire for years (e.g. Contagion); filmmakers should not ignore the very fact that the disaster movie has now become real-life. However, to achieve this, Hollywood needs to be responsive, quick and innovative. The normal filmmaking process condensed into short and sharp filmmaking that works at speed. Songbird does just that in offering us a movie that was born as an idea in March, filmed in July and released at Christmas.
It is within this tight turnaround that Songbird is ultimately at its most impressive and most disappointing. With a narrative that takes us into the not too distant future of 2024. However, here there is little hope and optimism on offer in a world where COVID continues to march forward. The virus now on its fourth strain, each one becoming more deadly. With the majority of people locked away in their houses, while a small handful known as the “munies” walk free. These are the folk that carry immunity; their pass to the outside world carried in a much-sought-after yellow bracelet. However, there really isn’t much of an outside world to speak of, with most of the “munies” carrying out key jobs in keeping society functioning.
Meanwhile, for those locked away, their lives are controlled by the daily “temp test”. Their limited freedom held within a mobile device that records whether or not you are sick. Those who fail the test immediately transported to the secure Q-Zone, a camp that people enter without return. It is within this landscape of curtailed freedom and freedom without contact that we meet Nico (KJ Apa). His pre-lockdown career as an aspiring lawyer, replaced by a life delivering packages across the city of Los Angeles. Nico is a “munie,” his job allowing him to save up for an escape from the city; his lockdown girlfriend Sara (Sofia Carson) trapped in an apartment with her grandmother. But, Nico plans to rescue Sara and take her with him; the answer a yellow bracelet for her and her grandmother.
However, when Sara’s grandmother falls ill, Nico’s plans are suddenly plunged into crisis. With both Nico and Sara knowing that the daily temp check will result in transportation to the Q-Zone. And in a race against time, Nico finds himself submerged in an underworld attempt to gain a yellow bracelet for Sara at any cost.
Alongside its Romeo and Juliet inspired story of love across divides and boundaries, Songbird also bravely attempts to introduce several side plots. With Demi Moore and Bradley Whitford as a wealthy couple embedded in the dark world of immunity bracelet forgery. While at the same time, Alexandra D’Addario plays a gifted singer, whose life has been turned upside down; her only income from internet streaming. Meanwhile, we also have Paul Walter Hauser as a disabled veteran and Peter Stormare, as the villain of the piece as the head of sanitation. However, none of these side plots truly work in practice; the characters mere filler for the journey of Nico and Sara. While at the same time distracting from the most interesting plot device Songbird carries; its dystopian reflection of Romeo and Juliet in a pandemic world.
The result is a slightly confused jumble of romance and thriller that never quite finds its feet. The technical achievement of its production brought crashing down by a lack of meaningful story development. In a film that ultimately leaves you both confused, frustrated and cold, despite solid performances and engaging visuals. However, as an experiment in fast, socially reflective filmmaking, Songbird is equally both fascinating and brave. Its COVID defying speed and production, pointing toward a Hollywood system willing to take risks in re-defining modern filmmaking. And in a world where lockdowns continue to disrupt movie production, Songbird offers an interesting insight into a movie business beginning to explore its future. And love it, or hate it, Songbird may prove instrumental as a template for modern film production moving forward; the red tape of the studio system removed to ensure new content reaches our screens at speed.
Director: Adam Mason