William H. Macy makes a strong musical drama with good tunes for his directorial debut

Rudderless is renowned actor William H. Macy’s directorial debut, a musical drama that packs an emotional punch. Starring Billy Crudup as a grieving father, the struggling man connects with his dead son’s music by forming a band to play the songs. Anton Yelchin carefully plays a young man that functions as a replacement for the dead son in the grieving father’s life.

Rudderless played the Sundance Film Festival and drew raves for its original songs, written by Simon Steadman (formerly of Britpop group Steadman) and Charlton Pettus. Rudderless features a smart script that feels a little disjointed after a shocking revelation in the third act, completely changing the tone of the movie. What had been a heartfelt, feel-good journey for an emotionally crippled father instantly changes when the audience is hit over the head with a major surprise.

The first two acts are a fairly uplifting tale of music, as a man awakens from a downward spiral in his life by joining a band with college-age kids. Rudderless opens with Josh in his dorm room recording demos of his private songs. The 18-year-old college student has obvious talent, the sensitive indie music he creates has real passion and meaning behind it. Josh’s father is Sam (Billy Crudup), an advertising executive coming off a big win at his job.

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The father and son were supposed to meet for lunch when Josh dies in a terrible massacre on campus. Sam’s life is changed forever as he struggles to cope with the sudden tragedy. He soon takes to the bottle and leaves his high-powered advertising job. Two years after Josh’s death, Sam is working as a low-level house painter and living on a boat, seemingly oblivious to the world around him. He is numb to life and feeling down.

Sam’s life changes for the better when his ex-wife, Emily (Felicity Huffman), drops off the last of Josh’s possessions. Sam and Josh shared a passion for making music when Josh was growing up. Sam is about to throw the boxes out when he discovers several songs recorded by Josh before his death. He picks up Josh’s old guitar and ends up playing one of the songs at an open mic night, possibly as a tribute. The song immediately catches the attention of Quentin (Anton Yelchin), an aspiring musician himself that recognizes how great the song sounds and what talent lies behind it. Sam is amused that Quentin takes such interest in the music, the young guitarist is around the same age as his dead son.

Quentin finally talks Sam into forming a band, playing Josh’s songs every Saturday night at a local tavern. Quentin and the band think Sam has written the songs, they are unaware of Sam’s personal history and his dead son. That leads to problems when Josh’s girlfriend, Kate (Selena Gomez), warns Sam to stop playing his dead son’s songs. Laurence Fishbourne plays a friendly music store owner that helps out Sam and Quentin while dispensing sage advice.

The loaded Hollywood supporting cast feels a little out of place in this mostly indie drama.

Rudderless has good music, most of it leaning towards singer-songwriter indie pop. The actors pull off the actual singing and playing, including solid vocal performances from lead Billy Crudup. It’s rare to find credible actors this talented at both professions. The loaded Hollywood supporting cast feels a little out of place in this mostly indie drama. William H. Macy definitely dragged out his rolodex for casting, but it can pull you out of the movie when a celebrity like Selena Gomez plays a micro role.

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The good thing is that the movie is really about Sam and Quentin, both superbly played by Billy Crudup and Anton Yelchin. Yelchin plays the timid, curious twenty-something musician with skill and finesse. He is a kid from a bad background, working through his own issues by playing music and getting life advice from Sam, a new father figure. Quentin has musical talent, he simply needs the confidence to back it up.

Rudderless is definitely worth your time. Sam’s emotional journey feels fairly authentic, discovering himself again by playing his dead son’s songs. It is an unexpected bonus for Sam and the band when the songs turn out fairly popular, drawing energetic crowds. New information comes to light in the third act that changes everything, forcing the audience to reexamine Sam’s choices. What had been a heartfelt musical drama changes its focus. While it does lead to a greater appreciation of Sam’s struggles as a character, not everyone will embrace the revelation with open arms.

Movie ★★★★☆

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