This post may contain spoilers. Read at your own discretion.
I had a good first impression of “August Rush”. I found the film title attractive, because it sounded like the name of an alternative rock group I’d listen to, or a potential name I would christen a teenaged incarnation of my personal website. When I first saw the trailer a few years ago, it seemed to gleam with promise. It implied a wonderful story centred around the power that lies in music, the purity in the belief in magic, and the endurance of dreams. There were snippets of precisely the type of rock music I would listen to, and a promising cast assembly further reinforced by the appearance of Robin Williams.
With that said, that was 113 minutes I’ll never get back.
Evan Taylor (played by Freddie Highmore) is an eleven-year-old boy who lives in the Walden County Home for Boys. He has the ability to hear music virtually everywhere, even in silence. Evan also believes his parents are alive and are looking for him, and if he follows the music he hears, he can find them. The older boys do not share Evan’s hopefulness, and try to bully him into thinking the opposite. But being a unfettered soul, he refuses to give into their abuse.
In a flashback set more than a decade ago, Evan’s parents are revealed. Though both musicians, their individual persuasions two cannot be more opposite each other. Evan’s mother, Lyla Novacek (played by Kerri Russell) is a concert cellist and a product of the Julliard School. She is very familiar with the prim and proper end of fame, including the reality that comes with having a stage parent. It is clear Lyla resents the constant close proximity of her father, but grins and bears with it. In another part of town, Louis Connelly (played by Jonathan Rhys Meyers and his eyes) is the lead singer of a rock band, and is psyching before an potentially deal-making concert. Both performances go without a hitch, giving a reason to celebrate. Louis leaves his venue early to spend time alone, while Lyla wanders to the rooftop of a building in the middle of a party. The two meet. Chemistry is virtually immediate, and it graduates into a passionate encounter. The next morning, Lyla and Louis are caught sleeping on a rusty futon by some of Louis’ band members. While Lyla is in a rush to leave, the two make plans to meet again. Unfortunately, their plans fall through.
Lyla becomes pregnant as a result of that one night, and over a dinner, her father berates her for irresponsibly sabotaging her successful career. She storms out of the restaurant and gets hit by a car. Lyla gives birth at the hospital, but due to her injuries, remains under for some time. While she is recuperating, her father arranges for the baby to be taken by an orphanage, and he tells Lyla the baby died. Although Louis does not know about this child, the aftermath of their encounter would change them both for years.
Eleven years later, something is happening within the premises of the orphanage. The Walden County Home for Boys occasionally opens its doors for counsellors to interview the orphans for foster home placement and the possibility of adoption. Evan sits outside one of the rooms, awaiting his turn. Just before he enters, he is informed to expect nothing, as the questions asked aren’t new, though the counsellor is. But the meeting with the new counsellor, Richard Jeffries (played by Terrence Howard) proves to be more than “nothing”. Richard does not make eye contact with the boy until Evan’s honest admission of not wanting to be adopted. The two further connect over a brief tutorial on how to whistle, something Richard does upon hearing the sound of the wind chime outside their room. Evan learns the skill rather quickly. Richard is moved by Evan’s plight, and promises him that “there’s a whole world out there with millions of wind chimes”. He gives him a card with his personal number, telling Evan to call whenever he wants to talk.
Soon, Evan runs away to New York City. He is introduced to a cacophony of music offered by the concrete jungle. The sounds make him more determined to seek the music in the array of sounds in order to find his parents. In the middle of his search, he encounters Arthur, a boy with a beautiful voice and guitar. Evan asks for a place to stay, and Arthur coaxes him into buying pizza in exchange for shelter. Evan is led into an abandoned theatre, and he sees many children inside. It turns out the pizza bought is to provide a meal for a large group. Shortly after, he meets Maxwell Wallace — or “Wizard” (played by Robin Williams) — a man who employs the children as street musicians and takes a large portion of their earnings. Only drawn to the sound of music, Evan vies for a place in the group. Wizard does not take well to him until he catches Evan playing Arthur’s guitar with prodigious skill. Arthur, formerly one of Wizard’s favourites, is pushed back and he begins feeling envious of Evan. Equipped with a unique sound and a large potential to rake in money, Evan is given the stage name. He will then be known as “August Rush”, a name adapted after Wizard catches a glimpse at a passing truck bearing the two words. However, the stage name is used so that Wizard’s new investment will not be found by the proper authorities — or Evan’s/August’s parents. Evan’s/August’s obscurity under his stage name does not last. Aside from feeling the effects of his talent being monetised by someone else, the theatre is raided by police, and Evan/August is forced to seek shelter elsewhere.
His new refuge, a church, gives him the allowance to explore the other elements of music, and he is enrolled in his mother’s alma mater under his stage name. He quickly absorbs music theory, but is not particularly careful about completing his assignments, because he is busy working on his own composition. The composition is the music he has been hearing for so long playing in every corner of all the places he has ever gone. The school board is forgiving of his academic ethics, and the composition is selected to be played by the New York Philharmonic for a concert to be held at Central Park. Evan/August is selected to conduct the piece. However, Wizard barges in during one of rehearsals and convinces Evan/August to return to the life of street music.
Meanwhile, Lyla and Louis have abandoned their music careers. Louis takes a big corporate job in San Francisco after leaving his band while Lyla teaches music in Chicago. Both lead relatively calm lives, but still harbour pain from the past. Lyla receives a call from the hospital and learns of the terminal condition of her now-estranged father. On his deathbed, he confesses that her son is still alive, and she moves back to New York in search for him. She begins playing the cello again, and is selected to be one of the performers for the concert. Louis, on the other hand, makes amends with his band members, and after having a rather public break-up, conducts a full-blown search for Lyla. With Lyla and Louis awake from their decade-long haze, this little family is aware of the existence of least one other member, and they all become more determined to find each other.
While “August Rush” had a pretty decent start, it was quickly depreciated by the abundance of inconsistencies in its storyline, illogical scene transitions, lack of believability, and sloppy editing. A pity, because it is a likeable story.
Cinematographically, “August Rush” was decent, and I have no qualms with the work done by British cinematographer John Mathieson. It is understated, with the very occasional artistically placed frame. I liked certain parts of the opening sequence, where plays of blurred and focused elements — much like a well-composed photographic capture — in some of frames are used to depict the intensity and resonance of some of the sounds heard in the film. However, there is one scene that completely escapes the scrutiny of editing, and it is excruciating to watch. Towards the end of the film, Evan/August tries to run away from Wizard for the last time, and is cornered dangerously near the subway tracks. Wizard lets the worst of his greed overcome him, and it manifests, just as the train runs loudly through their platform. A green screen had been used as part of the shoot, because of the implied dangers of shooting near subway rails. Unfortunately, that secret had been inadvertently revealed. Not even tucking this scene in the “Additional Scenes” section of my DVD copy could conceal the reality of negligent editing.
What made for most of the film’s downfall, ultimately, is its lack of believability. The actors, as talented as they are individually, were robotic. The strained relationship between Lyla Novacek and her father provide no further insight into their lives other than a portrait of an angry man with a daughter he cannot love correctly. Freddie Highmore’s portrayal of Evan Taylor/August Rush is endearing, but his consistently glazed eyes keeps me from feeling any connection to his character’s soul. Evan’s encounters with minor yet pivotal characters like the church minister, Richard Jeffries, and Hope, lack individual context, especially in terms of how they all appear to know each other by the film’s end. Just “knowing” or “making the mental connection” is a cheap shot and an uncreative approach. It is the technique used to make a lot of the plot transitions in “August Rush”, and implemented ad nauseam.
To me, a lack of believability should not be mistaken for a lack of realism. In spite of what some may assume, my problem does not lie in films that veer from reality. I like my fiction — a lot. Fiction is a good medium for explaining a life truth because of its ambiguity and fluidity of form. Excessive adherence to fitting elements into a “what is and what isn’t” mindframe in a film can distract from portraying the truth, because there would be far more concern over pithy technicalities. Believability, on the other hand, involves getting the viewer to become engaged with the story and to prove the legitimacy of its quality.
None of the characters in both “August Rush” are true to life. But if they were, their literary breaths are presumably drawn inspired by real people. On the other hand, connection people feel towards music is not only real and is felt by many. “August Rush” aspires to tell that truth, but falls short of a decent output.
In short: watch “Once” instead.