There are times in all our lives when a situation or person has a profound effect on us. Often, in the moment, the nature of these encounters is imperceptible to us. Significance presents itself long after the fact. It’s in hindsight that we can see these situations as life-changing.
At the cinema, destiny-forging moments are commonplace. We see them every time we go to the movies as we look in on characters and their evolving lives through a fifty-foot window.
In Movieland, killer whales, inner-city basketball teams or wisecracking genies change lives in fantastic and spectacular ways. In Chiara Viale’s debut feature The New Music, a life is made better by three punk rockers in a Dublin apartment.
Beginning with flurried snatch-and-grab camerawork and a rolling snare-drum backbeat, Viale brings high energy for the credits before a jump cut to main character Adrian (Cilléin McEvoy), fresh off a bus with a head full of worries. McEvoy carries himself like a newly resurrected zombie as he shambles through Dublin streets in search of his new accommodation.
Viale uses contrasting pacing at this early stage of the film to show us the intricacies of everyday life in the city. For some, the sunrise signals the end of the day, not its beginning. As we follow Adrian, we get a sense of the intermingled mess of lives and circumstances on the city streets. For some life goes on as normal. For Adrian, life may never be the same again.
Adrian, as we see him in these opening moments, lost and alone, is on the run from personal and professional problems. A diagnosis of young-onset Parkinson’s disease has brought a halt to his career as a concert pianist. We’re looking at a man for whom the world has stopped spinning.
These stylish opening scenes, which speak to Viale’s own interest in music videos, work in simple but catchy narrative hooks: what will Adrian’s new housemates make of him? What can Adrian make of himself now?
Chalk and cheese come to mind as Adrian meets with his new roomies. Will (Jack Fenton) and David (Patrick O’Brien) have a friendly macho head-game rivalry going on, which Adrian bristles at. Jodie (Martina Babisova) attempts to make Adrian feel at ease in his new home, but he gives her the cold shoulder as well.
The direction for these introductions focuses on Adrian’s face and reactions. It’s not so much mugging as it is grimacing to the camera. He’s a snob surrounded by free spirits and clearly finds it uncomfortable. These scenes have a strange ambiance to them. We don’t know whether to laugh or hide behind our fingers. We feel just as lost as Adrian does in these uncomfortable interactions of his own making.
Collectively, Will, David and Jodie are The Cellmates, a three-piece punk band who play local shows, busk on the street and practise in what looks to be the courtyard of their apartment building. To Adrian’s classically trained ears The Cellmates’ music is sloppy – and yet, there’s something in their scrappy enthusiasm and energy that speaks to him.
The Cellmates have what Adrian has lacked since his diagnosis: passion for life and music. It’s something that he left behind when he stepped on the bus to Dublin and ran away from his former life.
What we see is a gradual opening up from Adrian as he’s taken on a tour of The Cellmates’ world. The push and pull, for Adrian, comes from whether or not he’s going to let his guard down completely and risk his new friendships by revealing his condition to them.
There are a succession of musical sequences and montages as the band show Adrian around their Dublin. These scenes of the group attending punk shows, practising their own music or messing around on the city streets are the highlight of the picture. Viale successfully captures the spirit and chutzpah of the DIY punk scene.
Scenes that show The Cellmates at work have an intimate vérité feel to them. These sequences also feature the film’s standout dramatic moments.
When a split drumhead prevents practice from continuing, the frustration and desperation in Jodie’s voice is tangible in a way that feels lacking in many of the film’s straighter dramatic scenes. There’s a real feeling that Babisova has lived this moment before, something that doesn’t always come through in other scenes.
The beating heart of The New Music is in its portrayal of that special power music has over people. As a result, the scenes that bring us from one musical number to another keep us from experiencing more of the film at its very best.
There are highlights as Adrian struggles to give over to his new life and to happiness. A “cocoon of misery” is how his outward persona is described at one point.
McEvoy does good things with Adrian’s anguish. The film is not always sympathetic to Adrian’s attitude or how he treats people, but it is sympathetic to his condition and the scenes featuring doctors talking with Adrian or showing the effect that Parkinson’s has on his life are presented without melodrama.
There’s one humorous sequence featuring a make-up between the housemates that hinges on a giant communal bowl of crisps. Later, there’s a touching flashback featuring a younger Adrian receiving some wisdom from a kindly piano tutor.
Eventually, the cocoon does give way and Adrian is able to fly free with the rest of The Cellmates. Viale captures for us those life-changing moments without an orca or magic lamp in sight.
Some ways into the film, Will tells Adrian about his songwriting process: “Sit down, write your songs and speak to people, no? We’re not perfect, right, you’re not perfect, nothing’s perfect. Isn’t that what music’s all about?”
This speaks to The New Music as a whole as well. This is an energetic, blood-and-sweat kind of film that’s a little sloppy, maybe discordant, but as with any good punk record, it’s about the total package. It’s got something to say, there’s an attitude here. The New Music ends up feeling like the first of many hits to come.
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