“I was born the son of a king,” sings the protagonist of The Song in an early scene — one of the more explicit moments of self-awareness regarding the story’s biblical echoes. A faith-based romantic drama with a country music milieu, The Song is couched as a contemporary reimagining of the life of King Solomon, son of David. In this retelling, King David becomes David King, an icon in the country music scene whose son Jed (Alan Powell of the Christian band Anthem Lights) struggles to define himself in contrast to his famous father.
Jed is also determined to avoid his father’s mistakes. Like his biblical namesake, David King slept with another man’s wife and later married her after the death of her husband (in this case by suicide, not murder). David’s son Jed even asks God for wisdom before building a house for God, in this case a small chapel in which to wed his beloved, Rose Jordan (Ali Faulkner of Twilight: Breaking Dawn – Part 1). Echoes of the biblical stories are accentuated by voiceover recitations from the Song of Songs (hence the title), Proverbs and Ecclesiastes — a surprisingly effective technique, and a relatively daring one for a faith-based film, particularly given the bleak themes of Ecclesiastes.
The biblical resonances themselves are a mixed bag. Echoes of Old Testament stories may make the theme of marital challenges and infidelity more palatable to pious viewers, but at times the connections are forced, even comical. Explaining his prowess at skipping stones, Jed says, “My father was legendary at slinging these things … some would say lethal.” Ho ho. Even goofier is a comedic, impromptu musical number raiding the famous tale of Solomon’s startlingly Gordian solution to the disputed baby case: In this setting, “Split You Baby” is given a romantic interpretation as Jed serenades Rose from the stage while heckling her ex-boyfriend (who’s such a creampuff that he doesn’t heckle back.)
This version of events makes Jed more wise guy than wise man … and therein lies a problem. Whatever else the film’s biblical resonances do, they undermine the weight of the characters and story, or at least underscore their limitations. Jed is a Solomonic figure only in externals. As a character, he’s bland and passive, with no sense of greatness — a far cry from the dynamic, ambitious son of David. If his prayer for wisdom is heard, there’s no sign of it; when he falls into sin, it isn’t the fall of a great man, just the stumbling of another shallow sinner. If wisdom isn’t one of your character’s defining traits, should Solomon really be your model? Even Jed’s awkward, offhand prayer for wisdom emphasizes the triviality of his story. Solomon prayed for wisdom because he felt overwhelmed by responsibility for his father’s legacy. Jed prays for wisdom because writer-director Richard Ramsey wants to connect him to Solomon.
Jed’s one passion is Rose — but since Rose is no better developed as a character than Jed, that doesn’t help much. Like many faith-based productions (most recently the sports drama When the Game Stands Tall), the characters are placeholders in moral situations that are the story’s real interest. Even as an entertainer, Jed doesn’t seem driven the way that, for example, Joaquin Phoenix’s Johnny Cash was in Walk the Line. That is, until Jed is joined onstage by bad-girl Shelby Bale (Caitlin Nicol-Thomas). Shelby starts as Jed’s opening act, but soon she’s kicking his trademark love song up a notch with her fiery fiddling (like the drummer in Tom Hanks’ That Thing You Do!).
With her tattoos, piercings and sultry stage attitude, Shelby is clearly bad news, placed in Jed’s path to lead him astray. In a subtler, more subversive film, Jed might have heeded the flashing red “Warning” sign over Shelby’s head, only to succumb to a more unexpected temptation. Say, an affair, not with a bad girl, but with a good one: a kindred spirit, pious and sweet. (Someone like Rose.) On the other hand, if he must go full Ecclesiastes, or at least yield to drinking, drugs and tattoos, then a full-blown crisis of faith is in order. As it is, Jed’s fall is neither subtle and conflicted enough for a believer, nor profound enough for a doubter. The same goes for Jed and Rose’s marital difficulties; a crucial moment in which Jed dissuades Rose from walking away by serenading her borders on insulting.
The Song comes to theaters as the world’s bishops converge on Rome for a synod on the family and evangelization. The film’s themes of marriage and fidelity are important ones, but with respect to evangelization The Song shares the weakness of most faith-based films, which are effectively made by the faithful, for the faithful.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.