Directed by: Christophe Lourdelet and Garth Jennings
Starring (voices): Mathew McConaughey, Reese Witherspoon, Seth McFarlane, Scarlett Johansson, Taron Egerton, Tori Kelly
“Without music, life would be a mistake.” If someone sat down to write a screenplay based upon this quotation from 19th Century German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, they would produce the movie Sing. This isn’t to say that the movie embodies Nietzsche’s philosophy as a whole, nor does it rely on the kind of music the surprisingly conservative Nietzsche would have enjoyed, but it definitely demonstrates the simple truth that is this one quotation.
Illumination Studios and the shared directing of Christophe Lourdelet and Garth Jennings bring us this animated story of a Koala named Buster Moon (Matthew McConaughey) who owns a failing theater and decides the best way to save his business and restore the idea of the theater in general is to hold a singing contest for the local residents of a town populated with anthropomorphic animals.
Due to a typographical error, everyone thinks the prize for the contest is $100,000 instead of the $1,000 that the Koala actually intended to promise. The money is important as we believe the driving motivation for the contestants is the prize; however, when the prize is revealed to be nonexistent, there is surprisingly little backlash, almost as if the money is irrelevant. This, I suspect, is the point.
While many of the story arcs for the individual contestants are also a bit cliché this does little to dampen my enthusiasm for this film. There’s the unappreciated and ignored housewife Rosita (Reese Witherspoon), Johnny (Taron Egerton) the sensitive artistic son of a brute father who doesn’t understand or appreciate his boy’s talent, the teenage girl, Ash (Scarlett Johansson) made to doubt her own abilities by egotistical and somewhat emotionally abusive boyfriend, and Meena (Tori Kelly), a young woman with immense talent that risks succumbing to fear rather than taking a chance. There’s also Mike the mouse (Seth McFarlane), who doesn’t seem to learn anything, but more on that below.
(Much can be said about the choices of animals for each characters, especially those of the women, which, unlike other animated films, saw no need to make their characters fit the predominant image of svelte bodies. I will leave this to others.)
The cliches don’t matter. In each case life is pushing the characters to suppress their musical abilities leading inextricably toward lives that are, to borrow from Nietzsche, mistakes. But this is not to say that the mistake is that the characters have failed to cash in on their respective talents. No, when it is discovered first that there is no $100,000 waiting for the winner, and even the $1,000 is destroyed along with the theater, the contestants urge Buster Moon to hold the show anyway. And when the only people who show up are friends and family, it doesn’t matter. Nor is their any indication that any of them achieve fame and fortune in the end. Fame, fortune, contest wins are not why we sing. We sing for ourselves, we are told. We sing because it is good in and of itself. We sing to make life worth living.
I think this is the true beauty of the film. So much lately has been written on the idea that art generally, and specifically liberal arts, is valuable because it can be commoditized. Wall Street values the critical thinking skill of philosophers. Literature and history majors possess analytical and writing skills valuable on the job market. Studying music improves scores in math.
It’s not that any of this is false; I have every reason to believe it’s all true. Nonetheless it misses the point. Art is good for it’s own sake. It is what makes life worth living. And not just for the artists, but for those touched by the art. In the film, the husband who neglects his wife because of the weight of his own responsibilities and not mere carelessness is suddenly awake and alive upon hearing her sing. Likewise Johnnny’s father hears his son sing and comes to see him for the first time as his own man. And while we’re touched by all of the performances, the shy young woman who blossoms on stage touches us all and serves as an emotionally climactic moment. We are better for having heard her sing because in that moment we feel as human as we ever will.
All of this is brought to crystal clarity by the inclusion of Mike the mouse. A Frank Sinatra-esque character who, unlike the rest of the contestants already lives a life devoted to music, but is, without a doubt, the most miserable character in the film. Music for him is merely a vehicle to impress women and make money. His cheating at a card game ultimately leads to the ruin of the theater. He is unethical, egotistical, and in the end, completely unrepentant. (I can’t help but think it fitting that MacFarlane provides the voice.)
But it is the Mike’s ultimate understanding of his gift as mere commodity and the ruin to which this mindset leads brings to light an important aspect of Marxist thought, commodity fetishism. For Marx, the true danger of capitalism is always the way in which it facillitates alienation. Separation not only from other human beings, but also from our own true nature. This begins to happen when we see our relations with others mediated only through the commodity relationship, i.e. what can be bought and sold.
Mike has a beautiful voice, and he may, in fact, be the most musically gifted of the entire group. When we first see him he is playing the notoriously difficult “Take 5” by Dave Brubeck, but only does so as a way of soliciting money from passersby. When he is told that the show will continue for no money, with no contest winner, he walks away seeing no point in it. He only returns in order to prove that he is just as good as the others in the show, and when we last see him, he gives no sign of having learned anything at all, least of which is an appreciation for his gift.
Mike stands out in the film. While all of the other characters are sympathetic, Mike is difficult to like. He insults and demeans the others in the show, and possesses only brief moments that elicit, not admiration, but pity. While the others are trying desperately to claim something of themselves via the show, Mike is only interested in what can be gained by his participation. His life is a shallow waste of talent, a mistake.
But Sing wisely gives us a full counter weight to Mike in the other main characters. In a world where the question “What do you want to be when you grow up?” is understood to mean “How do you plan to make money?” the message of “Sing” seems to be to remind us that being human is so much more than merely existing to sell our labor. Our most valuable aspect is not our ability to make money, but our ability to make life beautiful.
Of course I would be remiss if I failed to mention the irony of this message appearing in a highly marketable film whose hook is the reproduction of addictively catchy pop-songs. This tension is bound to exist, however, in any attempt to disseminate an anti capitalist message in a capitalist society. So I forgive it in favor of its message that the drudgery of day to day existence is made bearable only through art. “Sing” reminds us of this as its title is not merely a description of the movie, but also a command. Sing! Because without music, life would be a mistake.