Is this Congress Avenue or Hollywood Blvd.?
That was the giddy feeling Friday night around the Paramount Theatre for the world debut of “Song to Song,” the star-studded film from Austin auteur Terrence Malick that officially kicked off this year’s South by Southwest film festival.
Cast members Ryan Gosling, Michael Fassbender, Rooney Mara and Berenice Marlohe were all on hand — causing the kinds of shrieks, squeals and fevered iPhoning not usually associated with the director who has given us such arty films as “The Tree of Life” and “To the Wonder” as well as such classics as “Days of Heaven” and “Badlands.”
The presence of free barbecue being handed out to those in line from Austin favorites Black’s Barbecue aided the festive atmosphere.
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While the stars didn’t stay for a Q&A after the sold-out screening, they were brought up onstage for some comments before the film, though, notably, the reclusive Malick didn’t join them.
About working with Malick, who’s legendary for working to his own timetable and improvisational filming style, Fassbender told the crowd of approximately 1,200, “It’s intense. It’s challenging. It’s rewarding. It’s fun. [It’s] scary. He never stops writing. The whole experience is like an advanced improvisation. He’s an absolute original. He’s one of the great poets of this country.”
“We all wanted this experience of working with Terrence Malick,” said Gosling. “It’s like nothing else.”
“I remember the whole time being really aware that it’s special to be making something this way, even when it was rough,” offered Mara.
Earlier in the day, in a separate interview, executive producer Tanner Beard summed it up this way: “I think of him as the Albert Einstein of filmmaking. He doesn’t make movies. He makes something beyond them.”
Co-star Natalie Portman, who just had a baby daughter, couldn’t be at the premiere but sent along a note of well wishes.
“Song to Song,” set and filmed in Austin, ostensibly is about a love triangle among characters involved in the Austin music scene. Yet, it’s typical Malick in that plot takes a back seat to a free-form, sprawling, impressionistic portrait of love and rock’n’roll. And, while it was filmed on the streets and at music festivals in the capital city, the beautifully filmed Austin the characters inhabit feels curiously pristine and antiseptic, all sleek condo towers with stunning hill and water views.
Interestingly, Texas musicians aren’t as visible as rock legends Patti Smith, Iggy Pop and John Lydon. (Christian Bale was also in the movie but his scenes — as is often the case with Malick movies — didn’t make the final cut.)
Reviews for the film coming in after the premiere so far have been, well, not very good. “ ‘Song to Song’ is not designed to win back onetime admirers who felt Malick’s ‘To the Wonder’ and ‘Knight of Cups’ drowned in their own navels,” writes the Hollywood Reporter. “Though offering the occasional radiant moment (usually involving scenery), it is of a piece with those films, and is unlikely to fare much better at the box office. If it does, credit the draw of Ryan Gosling, whose younger fans will be wholly unprepared for what they get (and don’t get) here.”
The Los Angeles Times cheered Mara’s performance —“the two-time Oscar nominee infuses her conflicted character with a searching existential torture shared with the heroes of several recent Malick films, whether she’s keeping secrets from a lover or staring plaintively at steaks in the meat section of a Costco” — but Variety cut right to the quick, calling the film “borderline awful.”
Though there were appreciative applause and whistles from the audience at the two-hour film’s conclusion, the sentiments of that Variety review were echoed by one young moviegoer who, on the way out, was overheard telling a friend, “that felt like it was six hours.”
We’ll see how the general audience feels when the film opens in North Texas on March 24.