Things I Learned Watching Music and Lyrics

music_and_lyrics.jpgCampbell Scott was in this? How did I miss that?

You knew this shit was coming.

• Seth Cohen, making those post-OC moves! In the Land of Women looks like a pretty fucking good date-movie, even if it does have an absolutely awful title.

Music and Lyrics starts with the fake video for "Pop Goes My Heart," the cheesed-out fake 80s synthpop hit from Hugh Grant's fake old band, and it's a more accurate piece of period-pastiche than any of the big music numbers in Dreamgirls. It's also a better song than most of the ones in that movie. Hugh Grant, however, doesn't even make a halfway convincing pop star; his dance-moves are too mannered, and he registers way too much embarrassment as he pulls them off. Also, he looks like he's well into middle-age in the flashbacks; he actually looks younger when the movie flashes forward into the present.

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• Grant is actually much more believable as a former pop star; his hesitant stammer is the sort of thing people sometimes develop when they realize how humiliating their younger lives were. He can also sort of sing, which helps.

• Grant gets a chance to pull himself back out of obscurity when Cora Corman, a young pop star, hires him to write a song. Cora is supposed to be some sort of Britney/Christina hybrid (apparently the writers didn't get the memo about Britney no longer being popular), but she comes off more like a whitebread Shakira, mostly because of her superficial fixation on Eastern spirituality and her strangled-cat yowl. Haley Bennett plays the character with this weirdly glassy flatness, and she's totally boring and unconvincing, considering that most actual teenpop stars wouldn't have become teenpop stars if they didn't project something resembling a personality. (Pop stars only get to turn into walking mannequins after they've been pop stars for years; see Madonna.) We see her perform a bullshit teenpop-pastiche song that wouldn't have grazed a single radio-station playlist at the height of the circa-1999 teenpop boom. Her idea that Hugh Grant has to have his song all done and written by the end of the week is a ridiculously contrived setup, but it's a romantic comedy, so whatever.

• The whole premise of the movie is that Hugh Grant hears Drew Barrymore's absentminded lyric-doodles when she's watering the plants at his apartment and he's totally wowed and demands that she help him write his song because he doesn't know how to write lyrics. That's all well and good, but it would help matters a bit if Drew's lyrics weren't really, really terrible. There's a Studio 60 thing going on in the movie: these people are supposed to be absolutely great at what they do, but when we see the results, they suck; we're just supposed to take it on faith that they're good at their jobs.

• We see Hugh Grant sing some other old song at a nostalgia-circuit show, and it's nowhere near as good as "Pop Goes My Heart." It's not bouncy, effervescent synthpop; it's bullshit MOR power-balladry on the Simply Red/Rick Astley tip.

• Fountains of Wayne frontman Adam Schlesinger wrote most of the songs for the movie.

• Fuck Fountains of Wayne.

• Drew's explanation of the respective functions of melody and lyrics (melody is the initial physical attraction, lyrics are the love that develops over time) makes me want to impale my face on an axe-blade.

Music and Lyrics is one of those movies that takes place entirely in New York without being even remotely a New York movie, if that makes any sense.

• At all costs, Hugh Grant should be prevented from wearing a half-unbuttoned shirt/crucifix choker combination ever again.

• There's a nice moment in the movie where Hugh is embarrassed to be onstage doing his old songs and Drew tells him that there's no such thing as frivolous music and that pop musicians should be just as proud of their creations as any other artists. I completely agree. Too bad the movie totally contradicts that logic a few minutes later.

• There's another moment in the movie where Hugh plays Dance Dance Revolution with Drew's nephew and niece and the piece of utilitarian Euro-techno track playing in the background is better than the song that Hugh and Drew write together.

• The only conflict in this remarkably conflict-free movie comes when the actually present their song to Cora (spoilers coming), and she turns it into a breathy, extremely produced bit of sexed-up fake-Eastern space-pop. Drew gets all mad at it and calls it an "orgasm set to the Gandhi soundtrack." She wants to demand that Cora change it back; Hugh hates it too, but he doesn't want to offend his client, so he doesn't want to say anything. The minute of the revamped track that we hear is intentionally awful, but it's still a whole lot more interesting than the piano-fluff original. And so the movie plays right back into the fallacy that a pop song has to sound old for it to do anything profound; never mind that a few pop producers' flirtations with Eastern indigenous musics have birthed maybe half the great pop singles of this century. Drew calls it "pandering," but it's certainly no more of a pander than the adult-contempo radio-bait that her character actually wrote. The whole revamped version of the song might actually be an elaborate swipe at Timbaland, which, needless to say, makes my blood boil.

• Honestly, Music and Lyrics isn't really about music (or lyrics); all that stuff is just background material so we can watch two attractive, stammery actors get all attractive and stammery together, which they do quite nicely. And maybe it's a bit ridiculous for me to get all huffy about the movie's depiction of pop music when the movie also commits the grand-scheme greater crime of showing a New York where the only nonwhite people are stereotype-driven comic-relief background characters. But I really hope no impressionable viewer ever watches a movie like this one an comes out thinking that he understands pop music any better than he did before. It's amazing how even a movie about a damn Andrew Ridgely character can still come down to the same old fucking authenticity-vs.-prefabrication binary.

Voice review: Robert Wilonsky on Music and Lyrics

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