In 2024 a pandemic ravages the world and its cities. Centering on a handful of people as they navigate the obstacles currently hindering society: disease, martial law, quarantine, and vigilantes.
Songbird is at its most interesting when holding a mirror up to us now, but magnified – a new, new, new normal, 2020 but even worse. Songbird‘s world is recognisable but frightening, grubby but hard to look away from. How bad might it get? How bad might we get?
By week 213 of lockdown, COVID-23 has mutated. The mortality rate is 56% and due to the virus’s airborne transmission, everyone – bar hazmat-suited Security and healthcare workers, and a few people who are immune – is quarantined indoors.
Temperature checks are taken remotely every day, with infected citizens taking to Q-zones, quarantine areas that have turned into barbaric shanty towns.
LA is almost empty, as cheery Nico and his fellow “munie” (immune) cycle couriers drop off packages for a delivery company. Recipients are often rich and grumpy, envying Nico (KJ Apa) his freedom.
“Do you think we’re just fish in a bowl to him?” laughs Emma, the tween daughter of wealthy couple Piper Griffin (Demi Moore) and her husband William (Get Out‘s Bradley Whitford).
Songbird is the first mainstream movie to come from our 2020 pandemic. It’s overly earnest but lean and fast at only 84 minutes, a scant but enjoyable thriller wrapped up in extraordinary times (though not as extraordinary as they would have seemed a year ago).
It’s directed by Adam Mason from a script he co-wrote, and produced by Michael Bay, and while it’s fast-moving any explosions are limited to a few plumes of smoke rising across the city. The violence is government-sponsored but also small-scale and (im)personal, as citizens testing positive for the virus are dragged away.
Nico has fallen in love with Sara (Sofia Carson), though he’s never seen her in “real life”. While online dating is old now, in these times whether they’d even be compatible long-term isn’t the point; their future together, despite it driving the plot, isn’t that important. Most romantic movies don’t look forward, but even so this is about living in the extraordinary moment and trying not to think too far backwards or ahead (not least because you might fall down a plothole).
Sara lives with her grandmother, Lita (Elpidia Carrillo); they listen in shock as a neighbour who has failed her daily virus check bangs on Sara’s door begging for help before being dragged away. Then Lita falls ill.
It’s no classic, with lightly-drawn heroes and marker-pen baddies. Still, besides its first-to-market cachet, Songbird is not without its charms, beyond its spinning magnetism, repelling and compelling us.
Songbird highlights society’s resilience and looks at our adaptability, for good or ill – from the UV postboxes that instantly sanitise deliveries to the tacit acceptance of the Q-zones, as long as we don’t get sent there ourselves.
There are the silly but alliterate slogans: “stay safe, sane and sanitised!” says Head of Sanitation, Emmett Harland (Peter Stormare). Notices in wealthy areas state they shoot on sight, and government recorded messages are cheery yet threatening: “your compliance is mandatory, and appreciated!”
The young see their dreams put on hold; singer-songwriter May (Alexandra Daddario) is stuck in an LA motel, brought there by a music executive who was going to make her a star. She’s found an outlet though, singing online, and reaching out to disabled veteran Dozer (Paul Walter Hauser) who knows all about trying to reclaim some freedom to roam in a shrinking world.
The poster has the tagline “The only way out is together”, though really the biggest takeaway from Songbird is that its pandemic has only entrenched and widened inequality and wealth under the guise of “we’re all in this together”. Sound familiar?
A disruptive event can tear a hole in the fabric of society, providing an opportunity to create a fairer world. Somehow that never happened to us and it doesn’t happen in Songbird either.
That inequality is explicit in a sexual encounter between an older, rich man and a younger woman, which shows the stark realities of power and coercion when protection during sex means your own air supply.
And like every war it has its quick-on-their-feet spivs and black-marketeers, making the best of it for personal gain. The only thing of value to the wealthy now is the freedom to wander outside, so that commands the highest price. You can’t have munies from ordinary backgrounds becoming the “gods”, so the Griffins have started sourcing and selling the yellow immunity wristbands.
Songbird maximises its budget with a short cast and few bangs and whistles. There’s little reference to the wider world, beyond an almost magical disease-free Eden everyone wants to escape to.
The cast acquit themselves perfectly well. Stormare gives it his all as the grubby, greasy and criminally-inclined local government honcho, so if you’re missing panto this Christmas then stick this on, and maybe shout out “Oh no he isn’t!” when William Griffin goes outside with his fake immunity bracelet on. (I’m sure there’s a nod to John Wick 2, in which Stormare played a Russian gangster. You’ll know it when you see it.)
Apa is an endearing everyman (by Hollywood standards obviously). Daddario, as the kindly, resilient May, is particularly warm, one of the little people helping each other when they’ve been abandoned. Moore, as mom-on-a-mission Piper is always worth watching, though at times over-egged lines feel shipped in from bigger, glossier, less interesting productions: “Sometimes we have to do things we don’t want to survive,” Piper tells Emma.
You’ll already know whether you’re likely to watch this. People experienced the pandemic differently and while for some this will be a sharp cinematic shock after a somnolent lockdown, for others it’ll be too painful and near the knuckle. I’m sure it’ll get its share of hate-watchers too, like those people criticising someone’s terrible driving before slowing down to take a good look at the ensuing accident.
I knew I’d watch it as soon as it was announced, but then I did spend lockdown reading about the Black Death (where people behaved not unlike those in 2020). I find situations like ours, but worse, rather reassuring.
You’ll probably have forgotten Songbird by Boris’s next press conference anyway – despite it being a morality tale as old as the hills, about a world where love can save while lust can kill.
Read my article The more things change the more we stay the same (warning: very spoilery, so watch the movie first).
Songbird is currently showing in UK cinemas. It is also available on digital in the UK and US:
Watch the Songbird trailer: