Music and movies have frequently gone together. While cinema loves a good musical, often musicians have tried to make the move to the silver screen, and cinematic stories themselves have tried to capture the life of a musician through works of fiction or Oscar-calibre biopics. For Music in the Movies, Set the Tape will explore musical biopics, the mixed successes of attempts to make musicians movie stars, and tales that revel in the wonder of music and lyrics.
There is something approaching a near-masterpiece level of brilliance regarding Wild Rose. That might sound like shameless hyperbole with which to begin this entry into the Music in the Movies series, but it would be remiss to regard the film as anything else. So many films that have been covered over the last few weeks have fit into certain grooves and utilised many recurring tropes and cliches to incredibly entertaining effect (unless it was Glitter, obviously) that when something like Wild Rose comes along that does something a little different and which boasts a central performance like the one Jessie Buckley delivers, you cannot help but stand up and take notice.
There is always an air of fantasy to stories regarding someone pursuing their musical dreams, the promise of the light over the hill and that everything will be okay towards the end. Even some stories based on real-life figures whose lives have ended tragically (as we’ll see in two of the next films coming up) opt for an optimistic flourish, even if in real life things were different. Sometimes you get a Whiplash that goes for broke in regards to a darker slice of psychological drama, or as in the case of Wild Rose, directed by Tom Harper and written by Nicole Taylor, the intention is less dreamy realism and more of a colder dose of reality where the need to pursue a creative art is not the smoothest of journeys.
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The obvious thing to say here about the film is that it features a genuine star-making performance from Irish actress Jessie Buckley. To say she carries this film on her shoulders is something of an understatement, but carry it she does, and that’s even with stalwart supporting performances from the likes of Julie Walters and Sophie Okonedo. What is most remarkable about the whole thing (and a lot of this stems from Taylor’s magnificently tender yet realistic script), is that it doesn’t shy away from some harsher emotional realities. La La Land may have ended with a grace note that not every seemingly star-crossed relationship makes it to the end of the tale, and yet even in comparison, Wild Rose cuts a more intense slice of the real, albeit without ever becoming unremittingly grim.
In the hands of anyone else, this could have fallen into the pits of so-called ‘misery porn’, but it instead explores tenderly but with a cutting grace what it is to have dreams that can fall away from us because of our circumstances and who we are. Presenting audiences with a lead character who is one of the most enthralling and yet complex in recent years, what we have here is someone that we root for, who we want to see achieve her goals, but is never afraid to ask big questions of both herself and the audience in that pursuit.
In a quietly devastating manner, it subverts the tropes and cliches of so many films that are about those with musical dreams, but in a way that is realistic and never once goes for the option of calling attention to those trope subversions. It’s a ferocious, yet equally tender character study that presents someone you root for but also who also has to contend with what it means to make the choices and take the life path that she wants to place herself on. So many films that have been covered here are rooted in characters who are young, single and without children, and yet when Wild Rose begins, our first glimpse of Rose-Lynn is of her being released from prison and then having to return home to her mother Marion (Julie Walters, magnificent as always) who has been looking after Rose-Lynn’s children while she had been in prison.
Someone like Rose-Lynn could have so easily fallen into the realm of unlikeable or hateful, and the story could even have taken a stance on the decisions she is making and her sole focus on achieving her dreams at the cost of building a stable life with her own family. And yet real life is messy and never falls into categories that can be easily defined, and both Nicole Taylor’s script and Tom Harper’s direction knows this. Instead, everyone approaches the narrative in a very even-handed manner.
A lot of this comes down to Buckley’s performance, which was a star-making one. While she had made a mark in 2008 in the BBC talent series I’d Do Anything (in which she placed second), as well as appearances in the likes of War and Peace, it was her central role in the 2017 film Beast which she followed up with Wild Rose that ended up being a stunning call to attention that we were in the presence of a major new talent. She captures the conflicted air of Rose-Lynn to such a stunning degree that it isn’t a surprise that award nominations came her way. She carries the film magnificently, all the way to a tenderly hopeful conclusion that manages to leave things on a happy note, but one which never betrays the delicate tone of realism that it has accomplished up to that point.