You like fast, brutal, Bruce-Willis-type blockbuster movies? Then I will not recommend the following independent drama to you. A Love Song for Bobby Long, an adaptation of Ronald Capps’ novel Off Magazine Street and Shainee Gabel’s outstanding début as a director, has all the depth, beauty, magic and tranquillity that surely bores the usual action-Arnie fan but might enchant everybody else.
The plot is not complex: After her mother’s death, the stubborn teenager and high school dropout Purslane „Pursy“ Hominy Will (Scarlett Johansson) revisits her hometown of New Orleans to succeed to her estate. However, the inherited house turns out to be a lousy joint and, even worse, Pursy is forced to share it with two bizarre fellow occupants:
Bobby Long (John Travolta), an eccentric, neglected, limping and grumpy yet good-hearted retired literature professor, who cannot resist alcohol and cigarettes and still loves to make literary references – and Bobby’s handsome, kind and equally intellectual and drunk former teaching assistant, Lawson Pines (Gabriel Macht), who cannot leave his mentor and plans to immortalize him in a book. As time passes, the three different characters learn to stick together, change and develop and have to find out that they did not meet by chance…
This rather simple but moving, and both charmingly and realistically evolved story is conveyed in slow and rich pictures, which piece by piece capture the hot, sultry, sticky, bluesy and jazzy atmosphere of New Orleans the great (pre-Katrina), the sluggish Mississippi and the surrounding, colourful countryside. In the same way, the superb cinematography cautiously tells well-hidden secrets, sympathetically depicts the growing friendship between Pursy, Bobby and Lawson, and eventually unfolds the various lies all of them have lived until today.
It is above all Travolta who offers an astonishing performance as the peculiar professor with white hair, profound blue eyes and a philosophy based on the obligatory bottle of booze – and who even now, many years after Saturday Night Fever and Pulp Fiction, knows how to dance. Nevertheless, Johansson and Macht give huge evidence of their acting talents, too, and do brilliant jobs in playing the lonely, rebellious adolescent and the torn young man. Not to forget all the credibly broken locals around them.
New Orleans could be called one of the film’s stars as well; but the movie’s soundtrack is in no way inferior to the city. What would New Orleans be, after all, without music?
Starting with Los Lobos’ fabulous „Someday“, the viewer is drawn into the deepest heart of southern jazz and blues, together with some touching acoustic traditional songs performed by Travolta himself, an ounce of alternative rock, and a bundle of lesser known but very gifted singer-songwriters – among them Grayson Capps, son of the original book’s author and composer of the gorgeous title track. The lethargic and authentically portrayed ambience of the Mississippi River Delta is perfected by a ubiquitous concert of chirping birds and crickets, falling raindrops and melancholic guitar chords.
This bittersweet, tragicomic picture is not bubble gum pop à la Hollywood, it has the blues. To quote the Italian blues voodoo priest Zucchero: „In blues we trust. Blues will never die.“
A Love Song for Bobby Long
Directed by Shainee Gabel
116 min, USA 2004