‘Little Voice’ Sings a Sweet Tune About Struggling to Make Music While Dealing With Life
Apple TV’s “Little Voice” is a heartfelt series about an indie musician navigating new terrain while also surviving everyday life. It is a Gen Z fable, complete with angst and roommates, bars, and absentee parents. The original songs, by co-producer and chart-topper Sara Bareilles, are almost enough in their intimacy to tell the story.
Bess King (Brittany O’Grady) lives in New York City moonlighting as a server, music teacher and dog walker while cultivating her dreams of being a singer and songwriter. She has rented out a storage space to use as her creative area, since she already shares an apartment with autistic brother Louie (Kevin Valdez) and childhood friend Prisha (Shalini Bathina). Neighboring her with his own storage space is aspiring British filmmaker Ethan (Sean Teale), who recognizes her talent and of course develops feelings. At first Bess has one fatal flaw whenever she hits the stage, she gets so nervous she rambles into embarrassing monologues. But when a headlining band at the bar where she works falls apart, Bess gets her shot to share some original material and catches the ear of guitarist Samuel (Colton Ryan). The two begin writing songs together and per the rules of TV also start developing feelings. Torn between Samuel and Ethan, Bess tries to reach her artistic potential while feeling the shadow of other responsibilities.
“Little Voice” can be unabashedly melodramatic. It is co-produced by director J.J. Abrams, Bareilles, and Jessie Nelson, who both co-wrote the hit Broadway adaptation of the film “Waitress.” What they deliver is a balance between an endearing underdog story and a typical romance designed to tug at your heart strings. But the romantic angle, which features moments worthy of Nicholas Sparks, is not its strongest element. The best moments in the show range between Bess as a classic underdog artist and how she must juggle her dreams with real life. We see her in her storage space writing songs, then feeling the frustration of making end’s meet playing covers at a retirement home, or teaching a really young pupil how to play “Wrecking Ball” on electric guitar. She would be happy devoting every waking moment to writing music, but she is also trying to help Louie grow up and find a job. It is a difficult process considering his autism makes for encroaching and overbearing fits and behavior in public. Louie is also obsessed with stage musicals and gets fired from an usher job after being obnoxious with guests.
It is the side characters and more uncomfortable glimpses at reality that give “Little Voice” lasting dramatic power. The romance boils down to who Bess will choose, charming Ethan or fellow musician Samuel. Frankly, Bess should drop Ethan considering on the first night they met he didn’t bother to tell her he has a girlfriend. But as they say, it’s complicated. More involved is the storyline with Bess’s father, Percy (Chuck Cooper), who was once a successful singer who never reached the heights he deserved. Now, he quietly struggles with alcoholism and in a particularly painful scene flops during a recording session, while trying to hide the small bottle from which he takes swigs. But, we can see from where Bess inherited her magnificent voice, although Percy rails against the current state of music. The show also does not shy away from tackling serious issues like sexual harassment in the music industry when a producer harasses Bess and shatters her illusions about easily finding success. Prisha is also a musician who performs with a mariachi band, she also happens to be gay and is terrified about telling her traditional Indian parents, who are busy trying to arrange her with proper, successful Indian men. When she is the victim of a hate crime her parents assume it was racism, not realizing it was also a homophobic attack.
Good shows or movies about musicians always leave room for a glance at the artistic process. “Little Voice” does that by demonstrating how all of these events and experiences are then channeled by Bess in her songs. Written by Bareilles the songs sound like strong Indie-style melodies with lyrics that transform what Bess is thinking or feeling into elegant expressions. “King of the Lost Boys” is a standout as an almost heartbreaking soundtrack to the trials Bess has endured while loving Louie and being a loyal sibling. Kevin Valdez, an autistic actor who delivers one of the show’s best performances, also gets to sing little tributes to musicals like “Fiddler and the Roof” and “Hamilton.”
Above all, “Little Voice” is a show full of life and a profound love for what music means to those who devote their lives to its creation. This is indeed the kind of show where two lovers will kiss before hitting the stage, or when the power goes out during a storm Bess will soldier on with bar patrons showing support while clapping along. The season finale closes with Bess’s name being written on a napkin by someone who could change her life. The dream lives on and it’s a joy to watch when it comes with good melodies for the journey.
“Little Voice” season one begins streaming July 10 with new episodes premiering every Friday on Apple TV+.