I tend to have a hard time with movies about pop musicians. Having grown up in a record store and been a performing songwriter for most of my life, I find that movies about music culture have a tendency to inflate its glamor and mystique, and that has a recursive effect on the culture itself. Music narratives tend to be about the mythological rise and fall of an artist, but for most working musicians, there’s never much of a rise to speak of — they’re just people, and it’s just work. Those who shape their entire lives around the iconography of what it means to be a rock star often suffer for it because this ideal is unattainable. It’s a facade, one propped up by films where the artists step off stage but remain characters.
Hard Luck Love Song, the feature directorial debut of Austin native Justin Corbsie, sidesteps this entire issue by centering his story on a failed musician who we never see on stage, and yet is always performing. The narrative is based on “Just Like Old Times,” a song about a pool hustler by singer-songwriter Todd Snider, but Corbsie reframes the story in tribute to his roots in the Austin music scene. In a statement that accompanied my screener of the film, Corbsie calls it “a love letter to modern Americana music and the colorful characters who inhabit that world,” and while I could see a lot of affection for scenesters in the film, I was far more refreshed by what I see as a critique of the lifestyle it depicts. Hard Luck Love Song is an authentic, unglamorous character study of the American troubadour.
Three Chords and a Lie
Jesse (Michael Dorman, For All Mankind) is a broke singer-songwriter, though whether or not he’s actually done any singing or songwriting lately is anyone’s guess. Even his boast that he’s been writing songs for “the fifth-biggest singer in Branson” is probably bullshit. When he rolls into West Los Angeles in his rusted-out ‘70s-model Chevy Nova, he’s carrying a guitar, a pool cue, a vintage turntable and a modest record collection. It’s the inventory of a man who’s not just broke but also deeply invested in the identity of a traveling musician. Short of a wax cylinder, there’s no less practical or cost-effective way to curate a music collection than to carry a stack of 45s in a suitcase, but that’s who he is. Playing music seems to offer him no joy at all, but he’s got nothing else. Strip away the affections of the happily-lost balladeer and all that’s left is a penniless, friendless loser.
Jesse does have one undeniable skill, however — he can hustle pool like nobody’s business. In his first 48 hours in town, Jesse shoots a found $100 bill into a couple grand. His real victory comes when he happens across an ad in the (ahem) companionship section of the local alt weekly quoting a Daniel Johnston lyric (“I’ll do anything but break dance for ya, darlin’”). He knows before he even dials that the number belongs to his high school sweetheart, Carla (Sophia Bush, Chicago P.D.). The two of them meet up and party at the Tumble Inn — his current home, her sometime place of business. The meat of the film is a two-hander, with Jesse and Carla relitigating their past relationship, obscuring their present misery, and trying to determine whether or not they have a future together.
Dorman and Bush shine together as a pair of lonely, unfulfilled thirty-somethings who fell in and out of love a decade ago but have found nothing better since. It’s one of those movie romances where you truly don’t know whether or not you ought to be rooting for the pair to be together. The film’s best moments, however, are when it follows Jesse’s lonely wanderings and interactions with strangers. Michael Dorman perfectly captures a particular type of old school traveling artist, the kind of person who craves social interaction and validation but who has also arranged his life so that he rarely knows anyone for more than a few hours. Jesse asks for a hug from nearly everyone he meets (aside from his pool opponents) because that is the only warm human contact he’s going to get. His only satisfaction in life comes from charming new people, even when the stakes are negligible. These habits and motivations are never remarked upon in dialogue, but Dorman conveys them with absolute clarity.
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What Do You Say We Make It Interesting?
Expanding the premise of a four-minute song into a 100-minute feature film is a rare storytelling challenge. Hard Luck Love Song adapts nearly every line from “Just Like Old Times,” which begins with the speaker finding the subject’s ad and inviting her over to drink wine, do some cocaine, and reminisce. The song has a single plot point, the arrival of a cop outside their hotel room, but the playful hangout vibe is never interrupted. Justin Corbsie and co-screenwriter Craig Ugoretz extrapolate the details of Jesse and Carla’s relationships from a few clues planted in the lyrics and establish some deeper character stakes so that the sad-funny tale can play as drama when necessary.
Where the adaptation struggles is the effort to add an antagonist to the story. True to Snider’s lyrics, the cop (Brian Sacca, bringing a quiet Zach Galifianakis energy to the role) is an easily dismissible threat, which means any menace will have to come from other characters. In the first act, we meet local tough guy Rollo (Dermott Mulroney, subject of this incredible SNL sketch), who doesn’t take kindly to being hustled during the pool tournament. Later, we encounter Louis (Wu-Tang rapper-producer RZA), whose relationship with Carla complicates her reunion with Jesse. The characters collide in a bizarre and tonally confused climax that, while forecast at the start of the film, still feels out of place. Not every story needs life-or-death stakes, and I found myself wishing that Corbsie had not tried to shoehorn thriller elements into what is otherwise a totally serviceable romance/hangout film.
The whiplash of the final ten minutes notwithstanding, there’s a lot to enjoy in Hard Luck Love Song. I found it to be a curious deconstruction of the rambling rock n roll rascal, a symbol which, like so many elements of American mythology, is built on bullshit. Jesse being a musician is actually immaterial to the plot but essential to the atmosphere and, as a working musician myself, I found the themes of the film to be very relatable. Anyone who buys into “the lifestyle” (which I admit, I’ve always resisted doing) knows that it puts an expiration date on you. You’re expected to be a mess, and if you can’t commodify being a mess, can’t find a way to make ends meet without betraying the fantasy of the scrappy struggling troubadour, then eventually it’ll stop being cute. Jesse passed “cute” some time ago, but finds a measure of hope in someone who remembers that version of him, loves that person, but also expects better. In or out of the music scene, that’s a story I think a lot of people can relate to.