J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

LAFF ’17: The Song of Sway Lake

The record collector’s passion is all well and good, as long as they remember it is all about the music and not the object in and of itself. Many times, I have cracked open highly collectible LPs that were still sealed and never regretted it. Ollie Sway should know better too, but he will get caught up in the Sway family legend surrounding a one-of-a-kind never-been-play private pressing in Ari Gold’s The Song of Sway Lake (trailer here), which premiered last night at the 2017 Los Angeles Film Festival.

Sway Lake was once the exclusive vacation community of the privileged Northeast elite, including Ollie’s robber baron great-grandfather, who used to own the entire lake bearing his name. His grandmother Charlotte, a.k.a. Charlie, still largely thinks of it as her private reserve as well. For years, she summered there with her beloved war hero husband Hal. In fact, their lake home was immortalized in “The Song of Sway Lake,” a massive wartime hit for the Andrews-esque Eden Sisters. However, the composer Tweed McKay (reportedly a former lover of Cole Porter) privately recorded the original, hipper big band version as a personal gift for Hal and Charlie.

The couple never listened to the special 78, because they understood it would eventually be worth a pretty penny. Consequently, Charlie is quite annoyed to find it is now apparently missing. Presumably, Ollie’s record collecting father hid it somewhere for safe-keeping before his recent suicide. Both she and Ollie have come to Sway Lake hoping to find it, but Ollie will be distracted from the search by Isadora, an actual live girl working as a maid across the lake, who will talk to him, most times. Grandma Sway will also get sidetracked by Ollie’s Russian chum Nikolai, who goes out of his way to act like the grandson she always wanted.

Sway Lake has a terrific backstory, but it is overstuffed with intergenerational melodrama. Arguably, all the distractions crowd-out the father-grieving son storyline, which should be central to the story. Frankly, all of Nikolai’s Tom Ripley-like shenanigans should have been red-penciled-out during an early stage of the script development.

Nevertheless, Gold capitalizes on some highly evocative, era-appropriate music composed by his brother Ethan. The climatic version of the title song, featuring John Grant singing the vocals of Tweed McKay is particularly spot-on.

Nobody could possibly be more loserish than Rory Culkin’s Ollie. He is such miserable sad sack, it is hard to believe Isabelle McNally’s reasonably normal Isadora would give him the time of day. On the other hand, Mary Beth Peil clearly enjoys playing Charlie Sway as the drama queen she is cracked up to be. The late Elizabeth Peña really helps keep it all grounded as Charlie’s tough, down-to-earth cook-slash-companion, whereas there is just too much of Robert Sheehan doing Nikolai.

Gold really captures the role music plays in preserving our memories. Ultimately, the final cut should have been more focused, but its merits outweigh Nikolai’s indulgences. Recommended for collectors with a taste for both hot and sweet 1940s big band music and family dramas, The Song of Sway Lake should have many festival selections in its future, following its premiere at this year’s LAFF.

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