Songs My Brothers Taught Me : ‘MUBI’ Review – Chloé Zhao’s Debut Is a Sincere and Striking Piece
Songs My Brothers Taught Me Review: Chloé Zhao’s first feature credited and played 20 pieces of music. These are not the songs that Jashaun Winters’ brothers – Johnny, Kevin, and Cody – teach her. The song that Johnny teaches her is how to live life to the fullest with zero impulse control. And Kevin, her stepbrother, teaches her the joy of riding bulls with neglectful parents in the background. A jail telephone glass frame restricts Cody throughout the film to do anything but talk to whoever visits him; no obvious song or lesson!
‘Songs My Brothers Taught Me’ opens with Johnny riding a horse. It, in fact, begins and ends with his voice-overs and ruminations. For instance, sample this:
“Anything that runs wild got something bad in him.
You want to leave some of that in there,
’cause they need it to survive out here.”
Cody, Johnny, and Jashaun’s mum, Lisa, gets the news of her ex-partner, Karl, dying, and that is when the plot unfolds. The first song is a goodbye one for him. Bill, a friend, narrates a story at the funeral about Karl, the cowboy. Karl had some 25 children and nine “so-called” wives, apparently. He, however, decided to marry one day. The next morning of the funeral, Jashaun goes to the remains of his burnt house and holds the ashes in her hands. She salvages some books and cans for herself, wearing his short coat, and cries.
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Although the Winters were not close to Karl, they have his last name, and his death has affected all of them a lot. Johnny drinks before one of his boxing matches remembering his dad. Jashaun has a whole hallucination sequence later on, and never lets go of his coat. I am not sure if he were alive, he would have been much of a presence in this story or their lives. His death, all the same, is a sure-shot shocker.
I would get punched in the eye if I were to tell this to any of the Winters. Grief comes in different forms. Not only on the day of the death, or anniversaries, but during the strangest moments when you do not expect it at all. Some people call it trauma, others a disorder connected with post-traumatic stress. All the same, there is nothing bringing them back. Karl’s loved ones are the only people who understand, live through, and carry that pain.
The Winters are a Lakota family – a Native American tribe. The family speaks in English although the tribe usually can speak Lakȟótiyapi. Our people live in Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, South Dakota, United States. In the film, this community has banned alcohol, and Johnny and another gang help peddle beer. Johnny gets a truck from his dealer; his dad’s. Jashaun and Johnny go for a drive.
The Winters are a family with the mother as the head. Karl is an absent figure. We do not know if he married Lisa or Kevin’s mum, or both. We just know he has fathered Cody, Johnny, and Jashaun. Yet they make do. While Johnny is running errands for the house, Jashaun is cleaning up. Lisa is cooking, at times, and expending words of wisdom to Jashaun. This nuclear unit of three is holding it together as much as it can. Even if they are a version of “broken,” they do not take it out on each other.
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Johnny and Jashaun are the powerhouses of this film and the love that they share is central to the film. Throughout the film, it is their bond we get to see. When Jashaun finds out that Johnny is leaving her for Aurelia – his girlfriend as she is eavesdropping on a conversation between the two, she cannot help herself but cry again. We, as spectators, do not know what will happen to the two. It is difficult to watch parts of the film when the two are preparing for the separation that is due.
The illusion series of scenes that Jashaun has, best shows the image of fire where Pine Ridge has an arc ablaze nearly engulfing it. A timely rain shower calms the catastrophe and her, showing her flashes of the time she spends with Johnny. Meanwhile, way before everything happens, he tells her: “Remember, you always gotta protect yourself.” He is teaching her boxing, “One, two, and duck!”
Los Angeles is Aurelia’s dream – a way out – and a part of Johnny’s hope, too! Johnny attends school hungover, one day. The teacher is asking everyone what they want to do with themselves in life. Johnny says “boxer,” but all he wants to do, seemingly, is flee Pine Ridge. He can pretty much do anything. He literally buys a vehicle so that he can do drive off with Aurelia, and control that aspect of his life.
Johnny is always in vests. Jashaun, Lisa, and her friend Angel wear minimalist clothes – a top and jeans, usually – and so does everyone else – a tee-shirt or a shirt and jeans. I thought there was no makeup until I saw that Melissa Barnard did the makeup in the credits. I suppose that’s how the camera tricks you – making people look like they have not worn any.
Aurelia is the only person who looks like she has some on and dresses like a high school girl – with reference to American visual media and high school students’ attire, attitude, and behavior. While Barnard succeeds in fulfilling Zhao’s intentions in making Aurelia Johnny’s object of desire, the character, played by Taysha Fuller, nonetheless, is more rounded than just being something that is Johnny’s. She is given an extended family, and the members play their role with such panache that if I were Johnny, I would not know what to do around that dining table.
Barnard did the production design as well. If the cameraman has taken over the landscape, she is responsible for the intricacies of the interiors. Zhao takes us inside three homes, two gardens, a rodeo, and other places, amidst plenty of grass, horses, bulls, and cowboys. Barnard never makes these places look or feel like a film set. Each of the three houses is similar, but looks lived in. Various objects that hold a lot of meaning to the people who inhabit them embellish the walls.
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Joshua James Richards, the cinematographer, has done a job so well that the small community of Pine Ridge comes to life through his lens. He gets the vast landscapes beautifully – be it shots of the sun and the soil, or the night sky, or the transition shots where campfire embers turn into the sun, or the siblings cycling against the backdrop of their landscape – and, of course, the close-ups of the individuals. Zhao did not want too many takes, he says, in an interview. It turns out he can do so much with his Alexa and other cameras under her direction that the two are able to make anything they shoot a thing of joy.
Alan Canant and Zhao edited ‘Songs,’ and the runtime is 98 minutes. There was one plot point that I reckon was predictable. Zhao’s writing takes two-thirds of the film to get there, but it adds some more. With that exception, Zhao has written ‘Songs’ tightly. Once that passes, she gets on with her business, and Johnny with his, quite casually, which only goes on to show the strengths of this film.
John Reddy delivers a performance so organically – whether it is imitating a “slow worm” or a “fast worm” for Aurelia, or smuggling liquor, or playing with Jashaun, or hanging out with his male buddies, or just breathing the air around him, it seems like he is inviting us to see a fraction of the chaos, confusion, and restlessness that is his mind.
Jashaun St John plays Jashaun. You run around with her when her brother is playing with her; listen with her when her stepbrother is narrating some event which she was definitely not a part of. The only person she shares with and truly cares for is Johnny. She is 11 in the film, and I do not think was any older around 2015. She tends to be a tad quiet, but she is the face of ‘Songs.’ Her performance is more cerebral, seen, and felt than usual.
The leads steal the film, but the supporting cast is very good, too. Irene Bredard as Lisa moves on from the crying mum trope to somebody who shows strength. She cares for all three of her children, prays for them, and supports their decisions no matter what. Kevin Hunter who plays Kevin Winters, the stepbrother, shows both his sides – crabby on the day of his father’s funeral and softie in a flashback much later in the film. Rene Haynes, the casting director, delivered beyond expectation, I guess. She has also brought Eleonore Hendricks and Travis Lone Hill to the film, who play significant supporting roles.
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‘Songs My Brothers Taught Me’ is called so because of its melodic score by the composer Peter Golub. Along with an entire sound department, he has put together a composition that is as revolutionary as it is classical. Playing at poignant points in the film, the score blends with the story. The 20 pieces of music are either composed or sung. They either play off radio, a music player, from a party or two, or just form part of the credits. But what is wonderful about them is that each of them plays at a set time just enough to show how sound and scene go hand-in-hand.
In all, this is a film that deserves to be watched before or after ‘Nomadland,’ now that Zhao became the second woman and the first woman of color to win both Best Director and Best Picture at the Oscars on the morning of 26 April 2021. That is no small feat. She is going to direct a Marvel movie next which is expected to come out in November this year. Between ‘Nomadland’ and ‘Songs My Brothers Taught Me,’ there was ‘The Rider,’ where critics took better note of her.
‘Songs My Brothers Taught Me’ premiered at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival. Much later, it got three nods at the 2016 Independent Spirit Awards. It is helpful to see where Zhao started from because it is such a beautiful place that you would want to tell everyone you know about it before we go ahead. Parts of John Reddy’s life, his family, and his house appear in the film. This, therefore, becomes the docu-drama hybrid Zhao has become known to film. Nobody watched Zhao or paid much attention to her in 2015, perhaps, because although her cameraperson and technique remains the same, John Reddy was no Frances McDormand. He has the skillset and the makings of a star; I wish he were enough!