The music is everywhere. "It's all around us. All you have to do is open yourself up."
"August Rush," the 2007 release from Warner Bros., received the Heartland Truly Moving Picture Award, which can either be a breath of life or a kiss of death for a film, depending on one's point of view. I found the movie warmly affecting at times and almost unbearably saccharine at others. On balance, I'd say if you like wistfully emotional stories that tug at the heartstrings, this one will fit the bill. Just be prepared for a sugar rush afterwards.
The story, directed by Kirsten Sheridan ("Disco Pigs") and written by Nick Castle ("Escape from New York," "Escape from L.A.," "Hook"), James V. Hart ("Contact," "Tuck Everlasting," "Sahara"), and Paul Castro centers around an eleven-year-old boy, Evan Taylor, who lives at the Walden County Home for Boys in upper New York state. He longs to escape his environment through music, if only he could play it. The other boys at the orphanage torment him about "hearing" music, and they call him a freak. But he won't let go. He believes that what he hears "came from his mother and father," and by listening closely enough to it and pursuing it, he can find them. The story is about his quest to find both the music and his parents.
So, Evan runs away from the home, following the music in his head, and winds up in New York City, where a man named Maxwell Wallace, known as "Wizard," takes him in. Wizard recognizes the musical talents in young runaways, provides a family for them and a place for them to live, encourages them to play for money as street musicians, and puts their combined income into a communal pot for all of them to share. Even though Evan has never played a note of music in his life, with Wizard's help he finds his natural gift for it. He's a child prodigy. When Evan discovers his talent, it's a wondrous moment in the film.
Meanwhile, running concurrently with Evan's narrative is a secondary story, that of a young man and a young woman. The young man is Louis Connelly, an Irish rock singer and guitarist playing music in a band with his brothers. The young woman is Lyla Novacek, a concert cellist playing guest appearances with various orchestras, at this point with the New York Philharmonic. The two meet one evening after a party on a starlit rooftop, and fall in love. Then, after spending a romantic night together, Lyla's controlling father demands that she travel to another city for yet another concert engagement, and fate separates the young couple for quite some time.
The best parts of the movie, with one exception, lie in the appeal of the actors and their performances. Freddie Highmore plays Evan, and while the actor may not have quite as much to work with as he did in "Finding Neverland" and "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory," he gives it his best, most cordial, most endearing shot and comes off relatively unscathed. Keri Russell as Lyla is positively radiant in beauty and personality, and Jonathan Rhys Meyers as Louis is roguishly, boyishly charming. In a supporting role, Terrence Howard plays Richard Jeffries, a case worker for New York's Child Services. As always, Howard as an actor is highly likeable and as a character in the movie is sympathetic and understanding. One can see and feel the delight and attractiveness of all these people.
Which leaves the only other major character, Wizard, played by Robin Williams, in question. You'll remember that Williams has been alternating his film roles between serious and comic parts. This one is serious, and, rather ironically, he's so good in it that it rather spoils the tone of the picture. The screenwriters clearly patterned Wizard after Fagin in the Dickens novel "Oliver Twist." Fagin was the villain who trained young orphans as pickpockets, provided them a home and "family," and stole their money. Wizard does the same thing. He's essentially a pimp, exploiting the kids by sending them out onto the streets to earn money through their music and then taking their earnings from them. Yet, Wizard also has his tender side, and there are times in the film when we almost believe he's doing the children some good, particularly in a scene where he helps Evan find his stage name, "August Rush." Which makes Wizard all the more odious. Because Williams presents his character as a troubled individual who seems seriously to believe he's doing good in the world, it makes the character all the more realistically evil, ending up detracting from the film's otherwise gentle, enchanting spirit.
Nevertheless, the characters and the acting cannot compete with a story that gets gushier and more sentimental as it goes along. It's a slick production, filmed largely on location in NYC; it's well acted, as I say; it's sincere beyond a fault; and it moves along at the speed of sound, if you count the sound of grass growing. The kid is appealing. The young couple are pleasing. The music is pleasant. The conflicts are trite. The plot is predictable. The sentiment is mawkish.
"August Rush" offers up emotion, desire, fighting, death, redemption, and coincidences galore. Worse, it doesn't take long before it turns into a pure fantasy, resorting to exaggeration and ridiculous, inexplicable actions. The ending is inevitable, but it defies belief. Taken as a parable, an allegory, a fairy-tale romance, "August Rush" has a certain engaging quality. But unless you like your stories really maudlin--unabashedly weepy--you may not find yourself quite as swept away by it as it would like to take you.
As they have been doing recently, Warner Bros. offer the film in both a full-screen and a widescreen version on flip sides of the same disc. The 1.33:1 full-screen is a pan-and-scan rendering of the movie that clips off about 44% of the sides of each frame. The widescreen preserves the film's original theatrical aspect ratio of 2.40:1. A high bit rate and anamorphic processing also help in reproducing the image, which comes up fine for standard definition, a bit soft and a trifle subdued, perhaps, but reasonably clear and clean and looking fairly truthful.
Likewise, the Dolby Digital 5.1 audio does a good job conveying the movie's music and dialogue. One notices immediately the wide frequency response and ample stereo spread. Then one notices the extreme bass, the shimmering highs, the naturalness of the midrange, and the extent of the surrounds, showing up particularly well in crowd noise and applause. The music, especially, comes off well.
Warner Bros. don't provide much in the way of extras. The main thing is about ten minutes of additional scenes, a half dozen or so of them. Beyond that, we get thirty-one scene selections but no chapter insert; a few trailers at start-up only for other WB and New Line titles; English, French, and Spanish spoken languages and subtitles; and English captions for the hearing impaired.
"August Rush" is a lot better than I thought it was going to be and a lot worse than it could have been. Still, with the dearth of good family pictures around, "August Rush" fills a void and comes across with at least a modicum of charm. Now, if only we couldn't guess almost every turn in the story from the very outset....
"The music is all around us. All you have to do is listen."