It’s been quite some time since I decided that I just don’t get music movies. When a character becomes so inspired by music that he will sacrifice anything to express it, I don’t understand what’s going on in there. Movies like Shine, My Immortal Beloved, and Amadeus all confound me a bit. Along comes August Rush with its slick movie trailer, full of glossy close-ups and an interestingly romantic idea: cellist meets rocker and share a romantic night. That night leads to a son who’s got music in his heart and soul and even though they parted ways, the music brings them back together. Sounds corny, right? That’s what I thought too, but when I put aside some of my rationalizations, August Rush really started to grow on me. Like listening to a catchy and beautiful song, I couldn’t help but be swept along and felt myself genuinely moved.
A lot of the appeal is owed to its stars. Keri Russell (forever remembered as the actress who played Felicity), and Jonathan Rhys Meyer (last seen as King Henry VIII on The Tudors television series) do pretty good jobs at fleshing out rather cliche characters. She’s a rich girl in a gilded cage whose domineering father pushes her to classical music stardom, and he’s a moody Irish rocker who is seeking to soothe his tortured soul. The real standout is Freddie Highmore (remember him as the gold-ticket-winning Charlie in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory?). His buck teeth, tousled hair, big eyes, and quiet demeanor have really helped him corner the market on lovable, cheek-pinchable young boy characters (… remember Haley Joel Whatsisname?). When he gets excited, you get excited for him and never once do you believe he would entertain a bad intention. As the head-in-the-clouds offspring of the aforementioned musical union, he finds himself abandoned by his parents (the reason isn’t revealed until a flashback half-way through the movie) but determined to “follow the music” and use it to call them back to him. With Freddie in the role, I completely believe that it’s going to happen, too. Unfortunately, along the way he gets picked up by Robin Williams’s “Wizard”, a Dickensian Fagin character who uses musical foundlings to earn him money as street performers. On the other side is Terrence Howard (2006 Oscar-nominee for Hustle & Flow) as a social worker. All these high-calibre actors do a great job lending believability to a story that would otherwise seem incredibly contrived.
The three main characters start out separate, but are gradually drawn together by music-based coincidences in their lives. The coincidences are almost fable-like in their preposterousness (example: Howard’s social worker not only interviews Highmore’s character at the group home right before he runs away, and happens to overhear Russell when she bursts into the office looking for her son, he even comes across Williams in the park when passing out Missing Child fliers of Highmore). Don’t get me started on how an 11-year-old, naive kid could make it to New York City on his own and survive on the streets for any significant amount of time!
In the end, it’s not so much whether you believe what’s being told that might help you enjoy this movie (at least it wasn’t for me). It was more about whether you feel for these characters. Musical movies owe no small debt to their soundtracks and this one probably more than most, since the music was mixed in loudly and prominently. Half of this movie was told in musical montages to a nice blend of classical music and soulful rock. Plus, whenever Highmore’s musical prodigy took the spotlight, whether strumming a guitar or playing a pipe organ, it was always quite captivating. As you’d expect, there’s a climactic scene that involves music as well (this time a concert in Central Park) and that’s when it’s not only about the music, but how all the characters are abstractly driven by music in their lives. If you make up your mind to enjoy this movie with the open-mindedness that you might apply to a new song (i.e. without a lot of cerebral analysis but letting yourself get swept up), I promise it will be an enjoyable experience. (4 out of 5)