In 2024 a pandemic ravages the world and its cities. Centering on a handful of people as they navigate the obstacles currently hindering society: disease, martial law, quarantine, and vigilantes.
Back in February Buzzfeed ran a headline which read “Everyone Is Watching ‘Contagion,’ A 9-Year-Old Movie About A Flu Outbreak.” Early in the Coronavirus pandemic Contagion became Warner Bros. second most watched film of the 2020, rising from 270th at the tail-end of 2019. It’s no surprise then that studios looked to how they could potentially update the formula for 2020.
Songbird was one of the first productions to get off the ground in Hollywood as the initial wave of Covid-19 eased off. Produced under strict new guidelines for films in production it capitalised on the stark contrast of an abandoned L.A. in a similar vein to Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later captured London in the early 00’s.
Many will question whether now is the right time to release this film. The reaction to its trailer alone was divisive. But, having studiously watched the film recently, I feel there’s still enjoyment to be had here.
Songbird features a – mostly – likeable cast who are all fully capable of handling the material they are given. The characters are – for the most part – also very likeable. It’s Riverdale’s KJ Apa who shoulders the brunt of the narrative here. It’s ultimately his biggest role outside of The CW hit and he does an admirable job of filling the empty streets of L.A. whilst breathing life in to a romance separated by viral borders.
The writing of Nico’s romance with Sara (Sofia Carson) feels rooted in the Twilight’s and Fault In Our Stars universes. What I mean by that is it’s a YA-friendly, star-crossed lovers tale which feels perfectly pitched for the actors inhabiting it. Director Adam Mason displays an understanding of his casts capabilities and adeptly plays to their strengths for maximum impact.
It’s difficult to say whether this feels like a true ensemble film or not. As I said, in its first act it is Nico who is front-and-centre with the rest of the cast in second place. It’s only later in the film, as plot lines begin to intersect, that the cast begins to cohere in to something which begins to resemble an ensemble.
Key to that ensemble are both Demi Moore and Bradley Whitford. Moore easily demands the most star power of anyone on the cast yet she takes a beautifully measured back seat to play a character whose motivations never quite feel fully realised. That “mostly likeable” cast/character I mentioned earlier, that’s Whitford. A brilliant character-actor who gets to be somewhat of a moustache twirling villain here. I wasn’t expecting to see him play someone as deplorable but he is still able to bring his trademark whit to the table.
Though they appear throughout the film, Moore and Whitford feel tangential to the main plot until it requires them to be otherwise. Their familial situation is well realised and feels well suited to the overall plot of the film. It’s their blackmarket dealings which feel a little out of left field. Their activities suit the plot and help to drive it forwards but little time is spent exploring how and why they ended up in this position.
Taking the ensemble a step further we have Alexandra Daddario’s May. Trapped in L.A. thanks to some broken promises from Whitford’s William, she has an axe to grind and little more than the roof over her head. Daddario feels a little lost here. Whilst I felt for her character in her more emotional moments, there are some overtly sexual moment which err more on the uncomfortable and left me feeling she was misplaced in this cast.
There’s a strange seven-degrees-of-separation in Songbird. May makes contact with Paul Walter Hauser’s Dozer via her online streaming, Dozer works with Craig Robinson’s Lester for whom Nico works as a courier.
The connections work well, showing how connections can be made outside the walls of the quarantine zone and how society is pushed to the limits in order to continue functioning. But Songbird doesn’t capitalise on those relationships early enough in the story to fully pay off on the premise.
Instead, Songbird presents a simple-yet-effective love story which just happens to be set against this dystopian backdrop. Rather the overly complicate the narrative Songbird instead focusses on world building, crafting a broken America thanks to the Covid-23 pandemic. Given the restrictions on production, the team have done an admirable job of creating the world on film. Locations are sparse, stakes feel high and there are some impressively created shots of both the exterior and interior of the quarantine zone.
There’s a measured pacing to act one which allows the audience to settle in to this heightened environment, in act two the story kicks up the pace and continues to do so through its conclusion. It all ties up neatly and, rightly, Songbird is able to end on a hopeful note.
Songbird is ultimately an entertaining, heartfelt movie set against the backdrop of a global pandemic.https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QASojQY8ERQ
Directed by Adam Mason, Songbird also stars Craig Robinson, Bradley Whitford, Peter Stormare, Alexandra Daddario with Paul Walter Hauser and Demi Moore.