I’ve been in a few bands over the years, and none of them hit it big. But that never really mattered. To me, it was always more enjoyable just to make music – playing with friends, improvising, writing songs together – these were my favorite parts. Songwriting, whether it is lyrics or music, can be a really cathartic experience. It is a way to leave behind emotions or ideas you’ve been struggling with by the end of the song, or better yet, a way to finally deal with them. And there is an undeniable rush to taking those creations and performing them live for an audience, whether that audience is five, or forty-five, people.
After college, I did some serious research into getting myself a small business loan. My dream at the time was to open a record store near Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, NY. I had my eye on a vacant store space (that is now a real estate office) and I made a point to visit as many other music stores as possible for “research purposes.” I wanted my own High Fidelity, and I was confident in a college town record store, despite the increasing trend of digital music. Eventually, I left that dream (and New York) altogether, and went out west to fall into other dreams and careers. But now I’m back (in Poughkeepsie) and I still think about making and performing music. 2018’s Hearts Beat Loud, directed by Brett Haley and co-written by Marc Basch (I’ll See You In My Dreams, The Hero), connected with me on many levels. It is an ultimately sweet and hopeful film. But I think its biggest strengths are the camaraderie of its fantastic cast, and the appreciation and love it pays towards creating music, especially at times of change or turmoil in life.
Nick Offerman plays Frank Fisher, the owner of Red Hook Records in Brooklyn, NY. He is seen grumpily smoking and intently watching a YouTube video of Jeff Tweedy (of Wilco and Tweedy fame) and he definitely channels his inner Rob Gordon as he tells a complaining customer that he will stop smoking in the store if he buys a record. Offerman initially appears so downtrodden. He has to tell his landlord Leslie (played by Toni Collette) that after 17 years of business, he will not be renewing his lease. Leslie says she has held off raising the rent as long as she could. She and Frank are friends who share a love of music, and a love of the institution that is a brick and mortar record store. But Frank is ready for some changes too: his daughter, Sam, is just about to go off to college at UCLA to study medicine.
Once home, you realize that Frank is a single dad. Sam (Kiersey Clemons), seems over her dad’s shenanigans while she studies pre-med courses the summer before leaving New York. Their dynamic is one where daughter seems to look after father (or at least thinks she looks after her father). Frank bugs Sam until she gives in to “jam sesh time,” where they play music together. This is where the movie really gains steam. Watching them play off of each other as father and daughter, but also as mentor and mentee is a delight. The process of writing music, and giving each other notes on it, is never boring. When Sam reveals a song she has written just earlier that day, their exchange goes like this:
Frank: You can’t make your heart feel like what?
Sam: It’s just a bunch words.
Frank: I want it that way? They want what, what way?
Sam: I’m sorry, are you bringing up the Backstreet Boys?
Frank: It’s actually a pretty good song.
This kind of sums up Frank’s character in a nutshell. While his daughter claims that he is responsible for making her a “music snob,” Frank never puts down any artists or musicians during the movie. He enjoys sharing music, recommending artists to Leslie or Sam, to share what he loves and is excited about. We watch Sam (Kiersey Clemons just kills it) belt out lyrics and contend with her dad’s enthusiasm that they should name their band. “We’re not a band,” she says firmly, to which Frank says, “I like it.” As much as I identify and sympathize with Frank’s character, I have been in Sam’s position too. One where a parent pushes ahead with what they want or think is best for you, despite your own attempts to make yourself heard. This is a constant theme throughout the film, as Sam readies herself to leave, and Frank struggles to let her go.
Amidst trying to study the human heart and writing songs with her dad, Sam does the unthinkable: she falls in love. Sasha Lane (American Honey) plays Rose, an artist who Sam connects with in a gallery. While Sam explains that she has lived her whole life in New York and wants to get away, Rose understands because she came to New York for the very same reason. She tries to explain to Sam, though, that it’s “not New York” that she is escaping. What I love about this side plot is how little a deal is made out of the fact that it is a same sex relationship. It is treated as normal, and healthy and loving. When Sam reveals more lyrics to Frank, he knows that it is a love song. “Every song is a love song…technically,” Sam counters. But her dad knows. He asks first, if she has a girlfriend, then a boyfriend (to which she scoffs). She tells him about Rose, and there is a realistic awkwardness to their exchange that comes from telling a parent about who you are dating, regardless of what sex that person is. Frank never judges or shows any signs of disappointment that his daughter is in a relationship with another woman.
In addition to the revelation of Sam’s relationship, Frank’s own interracial relationship with his wife and mother of Sam is also never mentioned. It is just treated as a loving, talented person that both Frank and Sam miss. As Sam and Rose’s relationship grows, we glean more backstory about Sam’s mother. She died in Brooklyn in a biking accident, and Sam has never learned how to ride a bicycle because of it. She was also a singer and musician with Frank, and it is easy to see why he tries to channel that esteem and love of music into Sam. He views Sam’s raw talent as a gift that should not be wasted, and tries to convince her of it. Sam, who tries so hard to be a steady and responsible influence in her father’s life, finally lets her guard down with Rose. She opens herself up to love, but also to dealing with the death of her mom and missing her.
While there is a pretty weak side plot about Frank’s aging kleptomaniac mother (played by Blythe Danner) we do get to see Frank interact with the rest of an awesome cast, which includes Toni Collette and Ted Danson. Ted Danson plays Dave, Frank’s friend and the owner of a neighborhood watering hole that Frank frequents. As Frank drowns his sorrows after committing to the decision to close his record store, Dave has some sage advice: “We don’t always get to do what we love, so we need to love what we do.” Part of his shtick as a wise bartender (hello, Cheers) is comical, as we listen to the aging silver fox comment on his love of upstate New York’s trees and smoking lots of marijuana. But when Frank’s in trouble, he is a dear friend, cutting him off and giving him real talk. Frank’s other friend and counterpoint in the film is his landlord, Leslie. They have undeniable chemistry, and they commiserate about their children growing up and leaving. But it’s easy to groan a bit as we watch Frank try to avoid crossing the line with his landlord, and failing. Leslie tries to save the record store by offering to become co-owner and backing some improvements (including the addition of a barista) but ultimately Frank refuses. He doesn’t want to be strung along despite Leslie’s good intentions.
Just when we see Frank kind of hit rock bottom, he hears the song he and Sam recorded being played in his favorite local bakery. He uploaded it to Spotify and now it is on a suggested indie music playlist. It is both hilarious and spot on endearing to watch Frank being so proud of his daughter and excited about their band. He then goes a bit overboard, buying more equipment and a new guitar, and writing out a plan for the future, including a wish list of music venues they should play. He is ready to suggest Sam put off college once a music rep stops by his store. Sam is the voice of reason, she doesn’t want to be in a band, she is going off to become a doctor. Frank tries to use her mother as leverage, but that pushes Sam too far. Later on when Frank finally plays a song for Sam that he wrote for his wife, we realize that not all of Sam’s musical talent comes from her mother. All of the film’s original music (composed by Keegan DeWitt) is earnest and heartfelt. The songs make you happy and excited and feel better. The soundtrack wears its heart on its sleeve; it is pop music indeed. Kiersey Clemons’ bluesy voice steals the show, but it is watching both her and Nick Offerman perform and play off of each other, loop pedals and all, that makes the movie so memorable.
While Sam struggles both with leaving her new love, Rose, and the end of her childhood (her growth is literally recorded on the wall inside Red Hook Records), she decides to boost her dad’s spirits by suggesting their first and only live performance as “We’re Not A Band” on the final evening that Frank’s record store is open. We get to see Sam be the brave one as she encourages her dad before they start playing. And she is truly brave. After Frank pushes her, we watch her lay her heart out in the love song “Blink” that she penned for Rose, before they perform their finale “Everything Must Go,” which Frank wrote as a way to deal with the closing of his record store, the loss of his wife and the end of an era with his daughter, Sam. After the store finally closes, a hesitant Sam asks Frank, “What if I stayed?” This is a believable option: staying for love (both romantic and familial) and the comforts and familiarity of home. But I am glad the film did not end on this path. We see some time has passed and Frank is now working as a bartender at Dave’s establishment, where Leslie pays him a visit. But the real possibility is with Sam. After we see a text message to Frank in which she has sent a new song and wants help with the bridge, we watch her out in California, still in school, get up at a café to play music solo for the first time.
Hearts Beat Loud may not be a life changing film, but the performances by its charming and talented cast, along with a contagious musical score, left me feeling both hopeful and nostalgic at the same time.
Besides watching movies, Diana likes the great outdoors, drawing and reading comics, and just generally rocking out. She has a BA in English Literature and is an art school drop out. IG: @dldimuro