Hearts Beat Loud
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The newest movie from Brett Haley (I’ll See You In My Dreams, The Hero) offers audiences an opportunity to explore the complications of modern life, especially through the lens of family dynamics, and ways that art — music in particular — can provide balms of consolation without needing to fix or solve situations. Hearts Beat Loud rests its core focus on a middle aged white man who must confront and balance competing demands — the perspective is that of Nick Offerman’s Frank Fisher, the owner of Red Hook Records. These demands, at the level of plot, are personified by his daughter, a winning and talented Sam Fisher (played by Kiersey Clemons), and the underdeveloped character of his mother (Blythe Danner’s Marianne Fisher).
Some of the movie’s deeper and more interesting questions of how we mediate temporal change emerge in the opening shot, where the audience sees Frank in a record store, streaming a video of Tweedy — Jeff Tweedy’s successful father/son project. As Frank interacts with a customer, who is angrily downloading an album from Amazon via his iPhone rather than purchasing it at the store, audiences see the juxtaposition of technologies: cassette tapes, vinyl and smartphones provide some sense of how technology has transformed how we interact with music.
The film next develops the contrasting perspectives of father and daughter. Sam is spending her summer before college in a pre-med class, and the film shows her absorbing information about the heart from this perspective before cutting to Frank discussing Songs: Ohia’s “Captain Badass” with a customer who turns out to be Leslie (Toni Collette), the woman who owns the space that houses the store. The father and daughter provide competing models of maturity, weighing kids who feel the need to be adults against parents who are attempting to recover, or remember, what it meant to be a child. Hearts Beat Loud allows audiences to sympathize both with Sam’s pragmatic worldview, in which it is necessary to work hard to have even a hope of a job, and with Frank’s understanding that succeeding at this game requires sacrificing everything that makes life worthwhile.
The strength of Hearts Beat Loud is in showing the centrality of music to the human experience, probably the best example of this since John Carney’s 2007 Once. The first “jam sesh” between father and daughter does this particularly well: The movie shows an initial contrast of Frank’s tight guitar riff with Sam’s more sweeping synths — but then shows Frank listening to and hearing where to work his guitar into the spaces that his daughter opens for him. A question of lyrics makes plain the point of the scene: There’s a time for focusing on feeling, rather than meaning, especially when humans have hearts with something missing. The moment of connection between father and daughter — when Sam knows she is heard by her father, who then can frame his contribution in ways she can understand — sets a wise allegory for the truth of love in the space of a catchy pop song.
The scene also works to show how music and technology integrate, revealing how analog instruments are converted to digital formats. The usefulness of this becomes quickly apparent, as Frank, sitting in his record store, uploads the song he just recorded into the digital cloud. The advantage of the digital is revealed a bit later, as he hears his own song being played over the speakers at the coffee shop. Although cynics may find the scene a bit too convenient at the level of a heavy-handed plot device, what they miss is the feeling of the scene — the joy that Frank finds when hearing his art in a public sphere, the oddity of encountering a part of himself as an observer rather than creator, the giddy thrill of telling the apathetic background patrons that he had a part in making the song.
Although joyful moments abound in Hearts Beat Loud, the film is careful to keep those moments (often caused by or through music) contextualized by the reality of loss and grief. Love is indeed a splendid thing, and one perhaps envies an ability to put it into song with as little effort as it seems to take Frank and Sam. But at the same time, each love is the precursor to loss. For the relationships in the movie — whether Marianne with “her Eddy,” Frank with Sam’s mother, or Sam with the love that she is poised to leave — every love is a new invitation for loss. Just as Frank can be enjoyed as a character and not feel two dimensional precisely because he’s believable as a selfish jerk, so also does the music earn its triumph by remaining honest about its sorrows.
These sorrows are notable as they avoid many modern movie clichés. Although the movie flirts with a romance between Frank and Leslie, it does so only to avoid it. The focus of the film is on how Frank feels about the relationships in his life: his mother, his daughter, his former wife, his landlady, even his friend Dave (Ted Danson, here, blends Sam Malone from Cheers with George from Bored to Death in a fun but fairly light role). The sum of love is complication and loss, but Frank finds himself pursuing these goods nonetheless.
Perhaps the movie in this way rang more true for me as a white, music-loving single father with a teenage child than it would for others — but nonetheless, I found it edifying to watch a movie whose heart focused primarily on men honoring and pursuing non-romantic forms of love. If a movie must focus on the plight of a man, it is nice to have one who is willing to listen and learn from the women around him. It was also a pleasant bit of escapism to be dropped into a fictional Brooklyn where biraciality and bisexuality were accepted as normal, without comment, rather than dwelt upon in a self-congratulatory fashion or as requiring some amount of drama.
The movie avoids cliché resolutions, but leaves its audience with a sense of successful synthesis. At the level of cultural context, it shows the need for record stores, with knowledgeable clerks who can pull a record from the deep stacks that will always hit home (as Iowa City’s Record Collector continues to do in the absence of Kirk Walther) balanced against the beauty of digital recording and technology. At the level of plot, it shows how children benefit from listening to the wisdom of their elders but not being held captive to dreams that died in a past generation. The connecting melody through both of these, of course, is music, which emerges joyfully to connect past and future in a way that weaves tradition into expectation. Every melody, after all, requires us to have a memory and sense of time.
Although the movie let some strands remain undeveloped at the level of meaning, it succeeded, just as the original music composed for the movie did, in connecting at the level of feeling. In daring to explore how to live with self-awareness, compassion and joy — and by demonstrating how important listening is as a way of remaining compassionately attuned to the beloved in a relationship — the movie succeeds at depicting the centrality of art to living a beautiful life.