François Girard’s ‘The Song of Names’ Drives Home the Importance of Remembrance
Music and film usually go hand in hand, and this is especially the case with “The Song of Names,” a historical musical drama that covers nearly 50 years in the lives of two unlikely best friends, British Martin Simmonds (Tim Roth as an adult, Gerran Howell as a young man, Misha Handley as a boy) and Polish Dovidl Rapoport (Clive Owen, Jonah Hauer-King, Luke Doyle). The film begins in 1951 when a packed audience in London awaits a performance from Dovidl, already a renowned violinist at age 21. Not only does he fail to show up that evening, he seems to disappear from the earth completely. Haunted by this loss, it is not until 35 years later that Martin receives a clue that leads him on a trail to his lost pal.
Martin’s journey, which leads him from England to Warsaw and eventually all the way to New York, is interwoven with flashbacks to his early years with Dovidl. When they are both nine, the young protégé, a Polish Jew, is sent to live with Martin’s family, as his father Gilbert (Stanley Townsend), is a music publisher. Zygmunt Rapoport (Jakub Kotynski) bids his son farewell as he goes back to Warsaw to protect his wife and daughters from the impending Nazi invasion.
Arrogant Dovidl and spoiled Martin don’t exactly become fast friends, but eventually grow close, bonding over not only normal boy things, but also their anxieties as the war ravages Europe. As time goes by without any word from his family, Dovidl fears the worst. In the years leading to his disappearance, he takes the bold step of renouncing his Jewish faith, dedicating himself to music, as well as less noble pursuits.
Adapted from the novel of the same name by Norman Lebrecht, screenwriter Jeffrey Caine wrote a tight, well-crafted script. But it was a score from Howard Shore that brought the story to life. The Oscar-winning composer worked closely with director François Girard, and the two men recently spoke with Entertainment Voice about their journey in bringing this beautiful and often haunting story to the big screen.
“For a year and a half, we didn’t hear the music,” recalled Girard. “It was just talking and shaping stuff and ideas.”
Shore opened up about his creative process. For him, an emotional connection is the most is the most important thing when agrees to do the music for a film. “I’m absorbing the story intellectually, but trying to write from my heart.”
He continued, “I like to read, so I do a lot of research before I compose. I like to absorb the time, the period, and all the ideas from the screenplay, the novel, about it, and things that might have had influence — culture, movies from when the novel was released. I do a lot of research and then I put it all away, and then I ask myself, ‘What do you have to contribute? What can you bring to the story?’ And then I start from there.”
Shore’s most important contribution here was to write the titular “Song of Names,” which we hear during a scene that takes place after young adult Dovidl randomly ends up in a London synagogue. It is difficult to talk about this moment without giving too much away, but suffice to say that it is an emotionally-charged scene.
“Howard did very extensive research to write that song,” said Girard, who revealed that Shore worked closely with a Jewish scholar to compose it. “The song is fictitious, but the song is real and true to Jewish liturgy and oral tradition and the notion of remembrance that you find in the Jewish culture.”
Another pivotal scene takes place between Roth and Owen after Martin finally comes face to face with Dovidl after 35 years, and the two have a conversation in the latter’s car. It’s a powerful scene, one that hinges on the actors’ performances, and the two men deliver. Girard revealed that he is most proud of this scene. “It was the center of gravity in the film, in a way.. This is where the chemistry between Tim and Clive, just like everything else, [culminates in] that moment. It was very intense, and I’m very proud of what made it onto the screen.”
In a film like this, where six different actors play two characters in three different stages in their lives, casting was key, as the actors had to work well in pairs, as well as vertically. “It was a long and very delicate balancing act,” declared Girard. “To find the six, if you replace one, suddenly it doesn’t work. It was a jigsaw puzzle.” With the Dovidls, there was the extra challenge with the violin playing. Doyle, the actor who played him as a boy, gives a performance that is especially impressive considering he had no previous acting experience; he was hired due to his being a violin protégé. “He’d never seen a camera before. While the two other Dovidls needed to learn to play the violin, he needed to learn how to act. The Dovidls worked really hard.”
“The Song of Names” is a thought-provoking film, especially when it comes to Doivdl and his choices. While Martin has the capacity to forgive him for taking off all those years ago, Martin’s wife, Helen (Catherine McCormack), sees him as selfish.
“You spend the whole film with the question ‘Why?’ ‘Why did he now do it?’ ‘Why did he not show up?’ When you get the answer, it has to be satisfying, but it’s not so black and white. Dovidl was a complex character,” said Girard. “Martin struggles to accept and understand what happened, and then we struggle with Martin. It has to remain a struggle. We can’t offer clean answers, otherwise it would be thinner. I think it’s a hard case to defend, and I think I understand his choices, but it’s a process to get there.”
At the end of it all, it is Girard’s hope that his film serves as a powerful reminder of the Holocaust and its lasting impact. As the last generation that witnessed the war firsthand dies off, it is important as ever to educate young people about what happened.
“50 percent of people younger than 30 years old don’t even know what the word means. The other [half], their knowledge of what really happened is super limited… I think, what we see in Europe, the rise of far-right movements, it can only be due to ignorance and the lack of memory. We live in a very amnestic world. Technology, the small screens are sucking us into an obsessive contemplation of the present time. The sense of memory is lost. Cinema is a good antidote. I think film, moviemaking is still a great way to explore way to escape the present time and explore the future and the past.”
“The Song of Names” opens Dec. 25 in Los Angeles and New York, expanding throughout January to select theaters.