I initially thought the concept of “Songbird” (now available on VOD) seemed tasteless – a movie about a pandemic that was conceived, written, shot, edited and released during a pandemic – but it was handled with a sensitivity I didn’t see coming (especially with Michael Bay serving as producer). The fact that we’re all going through something similar to the characters made me empathize with them to a greater degree.
“Songbird” takes place a few years in the future. Humanity is grappling with another pandemic – this time it’s COVID-23 (God, no! We don’t need sequels to this shit!). We’re in Los Angeles and it’s on permanent lockdown. Daily health screenings are mandatory with the sick being shipped away to the foreboding Q-Zone by armed sanitation workers in hazmat suits. Word has it if you go to the Q-Zone, you ain’t coming back.
The movie concerns itself primarily with a bicycle courier named Nico (K.J. Apa, this is the second Nico he’s played this year after the dreadful “Dead Reckoning”) who works for Lester (Craig Robinson) under the watchful eye of a drone operated by Dozer (Paul Walter Hauser, excelling playing another lovable weirdo). Nico is immune to the virus. He’s what folks call a “munie.” There aren’t many munies out in the world – another one is Emmett Harland (Peter Stormare), the knife-wielding Director of Sanitation who made his way up the ladder when all of his colleagues died. (You know Emmett’s a paradigm of virtue and goodwill because he’s played by Stormare and smokes cigarettes while saying, “It’s good to know something can still kill you.”) Munies are marked by scannable yellow wristbands that provide their information.
Nico has a girlfriend whom he’s never met face-to-face named Sara (Sofia Carson). They constantly communicate via video chat and Nico often delivers her trinkets. Sara lives with her grandmother Lita (as in la abuelita) played by Elpidia Carrillo – the lady from “Predator”!!! Nico’s working day and night in order to earn money for counterfeit wristbands so he, Sara and Lita can escape to Santa Cruz, Cal. – a safe haven from the virus.
Conveniently enough many of Nico’s deliveries take him to palatial home of sleazy record producer William Griffin (Bradley Whitford, smarming it up with great aplomb) and his wife Piper (Demi Moore – I’ve never been the biggest fan of hers, but it’s nice to see her again after a prolonged absence. She also does good work playing the neutral gray of this flick.), who are now producing the bogus bands (the ones for your wrists; not your ears) in order to maintain their opulent lifestyle and assure medical treatment for their autoimmune compromised daughter Emma (Lia McHugh). William has a wristband of his own and will escape the house for dalliances with May (Alexandra Daddario), a young musician he has holed up in a seedy motel. May is our titular songbird and will perform songs via webcast where she connects with Dozer.
Sure, it was probably opportunistic and somewhat insensitive for writer/director Adam Mason, co-writer Simon Boyes, Bay and the other filmmakers to make this movie, but at its heart “Songbird” is a story about the lengths people will go to for love and in that regard it works. Much of this is because of Apa, who looks and acts great here. I took a crap-a on Apa last month with my review of “Dead Reckoning,” but the dude’s charismatic as hell in this outing. I think the kid’s got a bright future.
The conditions under which the filmmakers made the movie are readily apparent. Many actors perform their scenes by themselves. Much of Apa’s material was filmed outdoors. Thematically the restrictions occasionally pay dividends – William and Piper’s marriage is on the fritz so having Whitford and Moore act out their scenes with one another at a distance makes complete sense.
You likely already know if “Songbird” is for you or not. If your dander is already up because of the pandemic, this may only serve to amplify your anxiety. Mason has made a movie that apes Bay’s style to some extent, but is much less frenetic as a whole. This is a pandemic rendition of the Bay-produced “The Purge” with a dash of Paul Haggis’ “Crash” thrown in for good measure as everyone’s seemingly connected. It’s better than its 10% Rotten Tomatoes score would indicate. It also provides an idea at how Phil Spector might behave in a pandemic via Whitford’s performance and gives viewers a glimpse of Daddario in a more revealing version of Leeloo’s outfit from “The Fifth Element.” I leave you with this: If you’re gonna watch one 2020 movie where K.J. Apa plays a kid named Nico make it “Songbird” and not “Dead Reckoning.”