In 2012, the more observant attendees of the Austin City Limits Music Festival noticed a strange preponderance of movie stars hanging out. Rooney Mara was jamming onstage during one midday set, and elsewhere, Ryan Gosling and Michael Fassbender were seen trudging about the grounds. They had all converged on Austin to shoot some footage on the sly for Texas’ favorite son Terrence Malick, who was beginning what would become a lengthy production process for the project then known as Weightless. While the notoriously less-than-prolific filmmaker has been cranking ’em out at an increased rate recently, his perfectionist tendencies have not completely left him, and he let the film gather dust as he spent a small eternity hacking something usable out of his original eight-hour cut.
Five years and one re-titling later, Song to Song has finally come to U.S. theaters, and as the circumstances of its creation would imply, Malick knit the musical culture of Austin right into the DNA of his latest film. The story focuses (though “focuses” may be a generous term for a film this defiantly formless) on two intersecting love triangles that meander through the city’s festival culture: Gosling’s a small-time musician struggling to break in, Mara’s his rocker girlfriend, Fassbender’s a skeezy producer who seduces her with promises of stardom, and Natalie Portman completes the quartet as a waitress who also catches Fassbender’s eye. Joining the four stars are an eclectic collection of real-life musicians who appear on camera more or less as themselves. From the elder six-string statesmen to the indie idols with surprising acting chops, here’s your guide to the film’s real-life rock idols.
Who: This Swedish singer-songwriter planted her flag with three studio albums that set her apart from her superficially similar countrywomen. (She’s a touch poppier than Robyn, but her songs stick to your ribs longer than Icona Pop’s.) This isn’t her first foray into film work, either — she previously attracted the attentions of New Moon director Chris Weitz, who tapped her to compose an original song for the Twilight sequel’s soundtrack. She’s a classic triple threat, a charismatic presence who can charm and beguile onstage and in front of the camera.
In the movie: She takes one of the more sizable minor roles in the film, appearing for an extended sequence as Gosling’s ex-lover. She talks him through some emotional issues as he goes through a personal crisis, and as seen in one clip, she accompanies him on an impromptu cover of “It Hurts to Be Alone” by Bob Marley and the Wailers.
Recommended listening: Lykke Li’s magnetism is present in her earliest forays into studio work; try the kiss-off “I’m Good, I’m Gone” for a shining example of how she imbues infectious hooks with convincing emotionality.
Who: Over four decades packed with essential work, punk’s poet laureate has graduated from a goddess of hard-nosed rock to a historical figure. She broke new ground in both music and fashion with her 1975 debut Horses and the bold sartorial androgyny that emblazoned the album cover. She’d go on to establish herself as a key figure in New York’s gloriously filthy ’70s punk heyday.
In the movie: Fittingly, Smith appears in the film as a source of guidance for Mara’s character. As Mara grapples with her various romantic entanglements and wonders whether she’s cut out for a life in the unforgiving world of music, Smith provides her with some perspective: “I never thought I would live long. You know, I’d be an artist and die young of tuberculosis or something, like Charlotte Brontë.”
Recommended listening: An artfully told account of a passionate love affair, “Because the Night” remains her most widely known song, and for good reason.
Red Hot Chili Peppers
Who: These sunny funk-rock stalwarts have gone platinum offering their take on everything from life in Southern California, to the skateboarding culture of Southern California, to the drug culture of Southern California. If you’ve pawed through any 15-year-old’s CD collection over the past two decades, chances are you’ve happened across a well-loved copy of Blood Sugar Sex Magik or Californication.
In the movie: Though they appear rather fleetingly to roughhouse with Fassbender backstage before a festival gig, there’s no missing Flea’s trademark neon-pink hair.
Recommended listening: RHCP’s chill vibes are epitomized on signature single “Under the Bridge,” which sounds like driving down a winding highway feels.
The Black Lips
Who: There’s nothing this Atlanta-bred garage-rock outfit won’t do to get a rise out of their fans. In concert, their thrashin’-bashin’ songs often provide an accompaniment to more colorful theatrics, from liberal nudity to unsimulated vomiting and urination to chainsawing amps. Anyone within 50 feet of the stage at a Black Lips gig will probably walk away with a few bruises for souvenirs.
In the movie: The band pretty much did their own thing during their ACL set back in 2012, but in Song to Song, they turn out to be Rooney Mara’s band! (The actress stepped out of the wings to hold up a guitar during their show.) Val Kilmer makes a memorable cameo as a stand-in Black Lip as well, throwing a powder he purports to be uranium onto the crowd before getting dragged away by the authorities.
Recommended listening: Not even an inclusion on the 500 Days of Summer soundtrack could drain the vinegar and battery acid from shit-kicking single “Bad Kids.”
Who: Who’s Iggy Pop? Get the hell out of here, that’s who. The perpetually shirtless high priest of hard rock brought the Stooges eternal honor as the dirtbag prophets of America’s disaffected youth, and then spent the rest of his career breeding the next generation of hellraiser by championing younger artists that earn his co-sign. Don’t let the car commercials fool you — Iggy’s still got cheap beer running through his veins.
In the movie: Iggy only gets about a minute of face time, but his few lines carry a fitting weight. Pop pops up backstage at a gig, and like Smith, he offers some sage pearls of wisdom. In his inimitably Iggyish way, he muses on life in the rock lane and the constant up and down that implies.
Recommended listening: “I Wanna Be Your Dog” is made up of little more than a three-chord riff repeated ad nauseam, a pivotal moment in musical history condensed into three spitting, yowling minutes.
Who: He went by Johnny Rotten during his days with the Sex Pistols, and he’s yet another face on punk’s Mount Rushmore appearing in the film. Lydon has retained his street cred in a world without former partner Sid Vicious, continuing to howl at feral crowds in concert while also shilling for butter.
In the movie: Lydon’s yet another of the rock heavyweights to pass in front of Malick’s camera, and he gets what might be the most memorable line of dialogue. In one of cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki’s signature Steadicam shots, Lydon loses his mind in jest with Fassbender, sounding a rafter-shaking primal scream. (Primal Scream, regrettably, could not be in the film.)
Recommended listening: Stick with the classics and go for “Anarchy in the U.K.” or “God Save the Queen.” Oi oi oi, etc. etc. etc.
Who: A native of Malick’s own Texas, Alan Palomo makes electronic music under the monikers Neon Indian and VEGA, though he has since merged the two under the Neon Indian name. He earned the adulations of tastemaker music blogs with his debut studio record Psychic Chasms, emerging as a pioneer of the subdued, hazy take on electronica colloquially known as “chillwave.”
In the movie: Malick spends many of the film’s early minutes getting the lay of Austin, exploring the interconnected community and taking stock of the offbeat residents who call it home. Palomo shows up to greet Mara like like an old pal. She playfully feeds him a French fry.
Recommended listening: “Deadbeat Summer” and “Should Have Taken Acid” were the breakout singles, but “Sleep Paralysist” is the stealth MVP in his catalogue.
Who: The self-proclaimed Queen-Diva-Dick-Eater-Ya-Betta-Believe-Her, Big Freedia is at the forefront of New Orleans’ bounce culture, which gave the world twerking. Her shows are a spectacle of the the first order, with buttocks flying every which way while Freedia leads the crowd in spirited call-and-response chanting. Her music has all the reckless abandon and zest for high living of the city she calls home.
In the movie: Freedia makes small talk with Mara, Gosling, and Fassbender’s characters for a split second, but more astonishing still is just how much footage of Freedia’s onstage twerkapalooza Malick includes in the film. Say what you will about Song to Song, but it definitely has more ass-shaking than all other Terrence Malick movies combined.
Recommended listening: “Azz Everywhere.” Enough said.
Who: The earthy hippie rocker crossed over with the anthemic “Dog Days Are Over,” but one radio hit does not a one-hit wonder make. As Florence + the Machine, Welch and her band crafted ambitious pop albums and mounted them on a massive orchestral scale, to often exhilarating results. They never quite regained the commercial success of their breakout single, but their output has been consistently admirable.
In the movie: Florence appears sans Machine, yet another of the famous faces in Fassbender’s Rolodex.
Recommended listening: Welch embraces her inner forest-spirit on the lung-stretcher “Cosmic Love.”
Who: Falconberry is an Austin local and a mainstay of festivals like ACL and South by Southwest. She writes intricate, sweetly worn songs with such complex patterns of counterpoint and harmony that they deserve the higher-brow label of “compositions.” Her combo of banjo, cello, and minutely detailed vocals earned her international esteem, and her respect in the Austin scene caught Malick’s eye as well.
In the movie: Falconberry gets a somewhat substantial role as Mara’s sister, who does what she can to keep her grounded and safe.
Recommended listening: Her concept album Leelanau, a collection of tunes about her childhood adventures on the Michigan peninsula, directly transports you to a far-off world.
Black Joe Lewis and the Honeybears
Who: Another Austin face, Black Joe Lewis pick up funk-soul fusion where James Brown left off. The energetic, outsize personality Lewis brings to his stage show with the Honeybears has made him a perennial guest on festival stages and late-night talk shows, and his faithful commitment to back-to-basics guitar licks earned him plenty of fans around traditionalist-heavy Austin.
In the movie: Lewis and the Honeybears appear in one scene as a band whose record is being produced by Fassbender, whose interests — professional, but mostly romantic — lie entirely elsewhere.
Recommended listening: Lewis knew he had to unload some serious fire when he and the Honeybears landed a spot on Craig Ferguson’s Late Late Show, and they smartly chose to bring down the house with “Sugarfoot.”
Malick’s made a habit of fully excising entire actors from his films (once upon a time, Christian Bale was going to be in this movie) and the musical guests are no different. Indie critical darlings of the late-2000s took a heavy hit, with Arcade Fire, Fleet Foxes, and Iron & Wine all left on the cutting-room floor. Just one more thing Win Butler has in common with Billy Bob Thornton.