'Hearts Beat Loud': Heard it before, kinda liked it anyway
For a visual metaphor representing endings and change, an independent record store makes an easy and not especially fresh one. At the beginning of “Hearts Beat Loud,” Frank (Nick Offerman), perched behind the counter at Red Hook Records, lights a cigarette and anything but acquiesces when the only customer says he cannot smoke inside. “You buy something,” he says, “and I’ll put it out.” The customer promptly leaves, pulls up Amazon on his phone and returns to tell Frank that he purchased the record cheaper online. Also, “You’re a dickhead.”
Frank is not a dickhead, but he is smarting from the impending loss of the two things he loves most. He has determined that he has to close the store – whose opening in 2001, it is amusing to imagine, could have been at least partially inspired by Frank seeing “High Fidelity” the year before – and has but a few weeks before his daughter Sam (Kiersey Clemons) leaves New York to attend UCLA. For reasons that are almost entirely for the purpose of added, rigged sentiment, she wants to be a doctor, allowing a scene of Sam in a premed class in which the teacher talks about heart function and notes that something unusual could be a sign of illness, or maybe falling in love. This really did not need to be in there.
That said, it is possible for good songs to have some clunky lyrics, and “Hearts Beat Loud,” which hinges on the minor Spotify success of a song Frank and Sam record together and the question of if their band (called We Are Not a Band) will do anything else before the next part of her life begins, mostly rises above moments in which the feeling feels cheap. In fact, Frank explicitly tells Sam that a song she writes is a mood piece, and that it has feeling means that it is good. That certainly seems to be director/co-writer Brett Haley’s philosophy; the drama here mostly hinges on heightened emotion rather than an abundance of incident. Toward the middle, “Hearts Beat Loud” gets a little soft, with escalation replaced by casual reflectiveness, clinging to hope.
If that sounds a bit navel-gazing, perhaps it is. Yet there is a lot to like. Unlike “The Rocker” and countless other movies about aspiring bands, “Hearts Beat Loud” does not create unreasonable fame from uploading material to the internet. (It does, however, nearly duplicate a scene from “That Thing You Do” as Frank hears his song publicly for the first time, in this case a bakery connected to Spotify’s “New indie mix” playlist, freaks out and runs home to share his excitement with Sam.) It also does not go overboard in building a romance between Frank and his landlord, Leslie (Toni Collette), who share a significant night when she takes him out for dinner as consolation for the store closing. That they go to sing karaoke and get a drink afterwards, enjoying a kiss in between, is because of their obvious rapport and not the approaching end of the business, outside the degree to which its status finally gives them room to act.
Of course, this is a movie about opportunities that almost happen and a certain bittersweet beauty in the short-term, especially in the face of an uncertain future. Sometimes life, Haley suggests, is about finding these chances for passion and squeezing them in. Frank and Sam are not a band, but they can write a few good songs. Frank and Leslie are not dating, but they can have a great night. Frank’s friend Dave (Ted Danson) may not get quite the same jolt from owning a bar that he did from acting on Broadway, but he can hang his old playbill and sometimes steal away to enjoy nature and get high. Sam and her new girlfriend Rose (Sasha Lane) are not forever, but they will not forget what they have. In the inevitable late-movie performance, when Sam plays the song she at first insists is not ready, Lane captures the dichotomy perfectly as Rose is struck by the song’s recognition of the couple’s connection as well as its expiration date. “We were right at the wrong time,” Sam sings. “You told me I was brave, and I’ll remember that.” What a powerful way to toast the present while saying goodbye to it.
It matters that the music in “Hearts Beat Loud” is pretty strong, not just to believe in what Frank and Sam are doing but to overcome Haley’s relatively anonymous visual style, generic challenges involving the confusion of Frank’s mom (Blythe Danner) and a sense of vagueness regarding who Leslie is and what she wants. Some of the lyrics, actually, are pretty basic (“see your face when I close my eyes,” for example), but fitting with Sam’s age and experience. There is no denying her vocal talent, and Clemons gives Sam a balance of goodness and defiance, informed by the loss of her mother a decade ago but not defined by it in the way that movies sometimes exploit. With Sam sometimes the sober adult to her dad’s excited kid, Clemons matches well with Offerman, who also appeared in Haley’s “The Hero” and is perfect for the filmmaker’s emotional generosity.
So even if talk of hearts feeling full gets a little on the nose, “Hearts Beat Loud” still manages to skew romantic without going full gush. Someone would have to be pretty soft to buy the whole thing, and awfully hard not to fall at all.
This review will be published in next year's edition of Magill's Cinema Annual. Click here to purchase copies of collections from previous years.