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‘August Rush’ works as gritty tale

POSTED: January 31, 2008 5:03 a.m.

Music has the power to uplift the downtrodden, unite strangers and bridge insurmountable distances. If you believe in those ideas even a little, be prepared for "August Rush" to win you over.

For the rest of you, it will likely still be a holiday movie worth your time.

"August Rush" is a fairy tale musical with some very hard edges, which only make the movie more effective.

The story follows the title character (Freddie Highmore) while he searches for his parents. Mom Lyla (Keri Russell) is a concert cellist oppressed by her over-protective father (William Sadler). Dad Louis (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) is a passionate Irish rock ’n‘ roll singer.

These two brilliant musicians meet and enjoy a lovely and reproductive night together on a New York City rooftop.

Nine months later, thanks to a series of plot events that I will not spoil, an infant son is placed in an orphanage and Lyla and Louis are completely out of contact with each other.

Young August has an unquenchable desire to find his parents, which he fervently connects with his love of music. He eventually sets off on his own, believing that his music will act as a beacon to Mom and Dad.

The publicity for the film doesn’t make it clear that this is a musical, because it’s not a conventional American musical. Rather than staging elaborate, Broadway-style dance numbers or having everyday people inexplicably and artificially burst into song, "August Rush" celebrates the musicality of common sounds.

During one sequence, August walks through the city and is entranced by the symphony of car brakes, mechanical steam and the endless chorus of man-made noise.

And that’s the foundation of the film: Music is all around us, if we only pause to listen. It’s a refreshing approach to the musical, and it works because director Kirsten Sheridan and editor William Steinkamp possess the talent and skill to pull it off.

Is it sentimental? Absolutely. Melodramatic? Oh yeah. But it’s very good melodrama, sold marvelously by the actors.

Just as he did in "Finding Neverland," Highmore gives us no choice but to love his character. The kid has a face every mother can love and, thankfully, acting chops beyond his 15 years.

It turns out both Russell and Meyers light up movie screens even more than television sets. Suddenly those two look like rising movie stars, since this film follows "Waitress" for Russell and "The Tudors" for Meyers.

And even Robin Williams is mostly on the mark as the abusive leader of a group of young street musicians (think Fagin in "Oliver Twist," only the kids play music in the park rather than pick pockets). This role may serve as a stay of execution for Williams’ career.

"August Rush," like any holiday musical, threatens to go saccharine more than once, but each time, Sheridan reins in the sweetness before it becomes too much.

It’s a rare "feel-good movie" that actually does lift our spirits, and it doesn’t ruin the whole experience by drawing out the ending too far.

Like a great piece of music, it ends how and when it should, and we leave humming the refrain.

Jeff Marker is a media studies professor at Gainesville State College.



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