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My wife can’t seem to stand watching Anne Hathaway. She likens it to a chore, true drudgery, because, in her opinion Hathaway is always acting. She is a performer given to the broadest flourish and the widest possible expression – eye-poppingly open at all times. I found it funny, when a few years back Hathaway was nominated for (and eventually won) an Academy Award – Best Supporting Actress for Les Misérables – because I, an avowed hater of movie musicals, found myself defending Hathaway’s work in the adaptation. She was the best thing in the whole miserable affair to me. I loved the way she embraced the drama and her singing bore such emotionality; she provided what little grounding I had during the film. Again and again, I said as much to my wife, but the woman remained unwilling and unmoved by what I saw as an apt charm offensive.

I’m not even going to broach the subject with my wife in support of Hathaway’s work in Song One, which is now available on Blu-Ray and DVD (it drops today – March 24th), but I will say here, that once again, I found that I couldn’t tear my eyes off Hathaway. Song One is a much different creature than Les Misérables. First-time director Kate Barker-Froyland occupies a small corner of the epic world and scope of that huge movie musical, and it does so eagerly, inhabiting a niche world of indie musicians and academics who write books and travel the world collecting sights and sounds for an even smaller audience of avid believers.

Franny (Hathaway) questions her younger brother’s decision to forego college, instead holing up in a tiny apartment with friends while filling journals with slices of life, experiences, and fragments of songs that he weaves together during performances in subway stations throughout the city. Henry (Ben Rosenfield) is a crazy dreamer with no real future. It makes far more sense, to her, to spend time in faraway places taking photos of exotic women and unfamiliar rituals, possibly because she has watched her mother (Mary Steenburgen) do the same thing, as a writer steeped in a rich and happy obscurity. What pray tell, is the difference between any of these characters?

Anne Hathaway and Johnny Flynn in SONG ONE

Anne Hathaway and Johnny Flynn in SONG ONE

It all comes together for Franny when she receives a frantic call from her mother telling her that Henry has been involved in an accident and lies in a coma, barely hanging onto life. Frank speeds home to sit at his bedside and rummage through his things – among the clutter at both their family apartment (where Franny no longer has a bed) and his artistic retreat with his friends. She finds his most recent journal, which documents his favorite hangouts, those quintessential NY meals that can only be had in the wee hours of the approaching dawn, and the awkward new-borne verses that will grow into full-fledged songs one day, if Henry emerges from his deep sleep. The pivotal find though is a ticket to an upcoming concert by James Forester (Johnny Flynn), Henry’s musical idol.

Franny attends the show, in Henry’s place and approaches the shy Forester, sharing Henry’s story with him, which strikes a chord with the musician, who is looking for something more than the usual exchanges with adoring fans. Forester is stuck, stalled in fact, unable to find a creative rhythm to propel him through the next phase of his development as an artist. The inevitable time that he spends with Franny will awaken him.

We know this, but that journey recedes, as does the fledgling love affair between Franny and Forester. It is such a slight and fragile wisp of a thing; so obvious that we can and should ignore it’s development. Instead, we would be wiser to focus on Hathaway, to settle in with her because she provides another emotionally grounded turn on a vastly difference scale and scope. It is a pleasure to simply watch her as she takes in these wonders that she discovers in her character’s exploration of her brother’s journals. Hathaway’s eyes open, to be sure, to the music all around the narrative, but we also catch a telling glimpse of what it is like to see a true sensual awakening as well. She draws his words off the page and seeks to place the scents and tastes of Henry’s favorites before him, as potential keys to bring him back to life, but she does the same for the audience too. We want to connect with these experiences, to share them, to have them crack the code for us, especially the original music composed by Jenny Lewis and Johnathan Rice, and gorgeously intimate live performances from Sharon Van Etten, The Felice Brothers, Dan Deacon, Paul Whitty, Naomi Shelton and the Gospel Queens, Cass Dillon, and Elizabeth Ziman.

Anne Hathaway in SONG ONE

Anne Hathaway in SONG ONE

On another level, Hathaway serves to remind more attentive viewers of what a younger Steenburgen was like. There is an eerie similarity between these two Academy Award winners – Steenburgen won the Supporting Actress Oscar for Melvin and Howard back in 1980, but also graced the screen in everything from Ragtime to Back to the Future III – with their long and lanky charms, their off-kilter intelligence and restlessness when it comes to selecting roles. The plan, if one exists for either actress, is to find a good company, troupe, or combo and run the lines or play the notes until some truth rings through. Hathaway tips her hand a bit more with Song One, since she also serves as a producer alongside Jonathan Demme (the pair collaborated on Rachel Getting Married in 2008). She’s got a nose for the rich intimacy to be found underneath the big showstoppers.

I’ll be waiting for the next gig to spotlight Hathaway, singing another song, one undoubtedly different than Barker-Froyland’s sweet tune. (tt stern-enzi)