The way back begins with a single chord.
In addition to 2014 being all about food-themed films (Chef, The Hundred-Foot Journey, Tasting Menu), a case can be made it was also quite the year for music-themed films. The year’s non-biopic release slate lists among its members Whiplash, We Are the Best!, Beyond the Lights, and several others, including the directorial debut of William H. Macy: Rudderless.
The film centers on Sam (Billy Crudup, Big Fish), a successful ad executive whose life is shattered when his son, Josh (Miles Heizer, TV’s Parenthood), dies in a campus shooting. Already divorced from Emily (Felicity Huffman, Trust Me) at the time of the tragedy, Sam spends the next two years spiraling out of control. He hits the bottle (and hard), loses his job and loses his house. All he has to his name is the boat on the lake on which he lives. When Emily delivers to him a box of Josh’s long-forgotten personal effects, Sam discovers his son was an aspiring musician.
As a form of catharsis, Sam, who knows a little about guitar, plays one of Josh’s songs at a local club’s Open Mic Night. The song gets the attention of young musician Quentin (Anton Yelchin, Star Trek Into Darkness), who convinces (pesters, really) Sam to start a band. Sam is reluctant but agrees; in the process, though, he fails to disclose that the song, and others like them, are not his but Josh’s. The band, named Rudderless, finds great local success, but on the verge of their next big step, Josh’s old girlfriend (Selena Gomez, Spring Breakers) reveals more to the band than just the fact the songs aren’t Sam’s.
Rudderless is an interesting film in that it should be commended for not reaching too high. The film treats all musical aspects with a considerable genuineness. It is never hinted or suggested that Sam and his band would find themselves anywhere near superstardom. They are local musicians who play a lot of small local gigs and their “big break” is to play a larger local gig. This not only grounds the film in realism, it keeps the story focused on the band’s music and Sam’s journey, not any sort of celebrity trajectory.
And what sensational music it is. Most of the tunes are written by Charlton Pettus and Simon Steadman, and I would classify the songs as bar band pop — rough enough to be cranked out by four guys in a loud joint, but infectious enough to get the listener’s feet tapping and keep the tunes playing your head long after last call (I actually bought the soundtrack the day after watching the film; it’s that entertaining).
Speaking of music, the casting of Selena Gomez reeks of the filmmakers looking for a name that might draw younger eyes to the film and maybe boost those record sales. Not the case here, though, and it’s another great example of Macy and Company not overreaching. They may have cast a singing sensation, but (a) Gomez doesn’t sing in the movie (although she has one duet on the soundtrack); and (b), despite how good they are, none of the songs are destined for Top 40 fame. This is the best part about them, though; they don’t feel like they’re trying to get on the radio or sell the movie/record/artist. As for her performance on screen, Gomez is a capable actress and she does just fine in the tiny (albeit critical) part.
The rest of the characters and casting are pitch perfect, especially Crudup and Yelchin, the latter of whose character could have easily veered down the path of being some undiscovered guitar protege (but it didn’t). Macy is also great in a tiny roll as the bar owner.
Better yet, though, is Macy as director. His freshman effort is terrific — engaging but not intrusive, and creative, but not overt. He also has a little flair for clever scene transitions.
Unfortunately, despite commending the film’s efforts to resist reaching too high (and thus being better for it), it should also be condemned for not digging too deep. The overall story struggles to find the pathos it should have. All reactions to loss and subsequent conflict are never truly developed; they are only ever presented as face-value reactions. This is okay early in the tale, when emotions are most raw, but once Sam makes the decision to use Josh’s music, especially given some details surrounding the boy’s death (no spoilers here), Sam’s internal emotional conflict never truly manifests itself. That part of his story fails to drive towards resolution; it only drifts there because it has to.
The circumstances involving Josh’s death are poorly presented, and it’s difficult to explain without spoiling it. The event appears clear, but the immediate aftermath is head-scratching. I paused the film to read the details of the event online, which helped me understand its context. I then went back and re-watched that scene immediately to determine if I simply missed something I shouldn’t have. I didn’t. (And for the record, the person watching the film with me was just as puzzled.) There is a scene later in the film at Josh’s grave that then acts like it wants to be some kind of big reveal, but the set-up is so murky it all fails.
The 1.78:1 Anamorphic video transfer on the Rudderless DVD is solid. All imagery is clear in all light levels, including a welcome absence of washout in brighter scenes. Image edges are good, too. As for the Dolby Digital 5.1 audio track, the bigger the sound, the better it performs. The quiet moments are fine, but when the band starts playing they sound great.
There are three extras on the Rudderless DVD:
Hear This Song is a 12:05 behind-the-scenes look at the film. It features Macy, Crudup, Yelchin, and Huffman discussing the usual collection of film-specific things like story and characterization, as well as BTS stuff like casting, chemistry, the music, etc. Scenes from the film, as well as still and BTS footage, are inserted throughout. While the interviews are insightful, the source audio is awful, sounding like the mic is attached to the camera (not on or above each person), and the hollowness of the large room consumes every word.
“Hold On” Music Video with Selena Gomez and Ben Kweller is exactly as it sounds — a 3:46 music video of a song from the film as performed by Gomez and Kweller (who plays the band’s bass player in the film). A couple other folks from the film join in to jam. It’s really rather good.
Finally, there are five deleted scenes totaling 8:14. The first three are fine to have been removed and the fourth would have made for a harrowing moment in the film but ultimately would have done nothing to advance it. But that fifth scene (“Guitar Lesson”), while not changing the end of the film, suggests a next chapter in Sam’s life that the film’s actual ending doesn’t. This is neither good nor bad, just interesting.
Strengthened by Crudup’s performance and a terrific soundtrack, Rudderless marks a fine directorial debut from William H. Macy. Given his career as an actor, Macy just might be the type of director to champion and helm smaller films like this one. I certainly hope he does.