By Richie Angel
“The music is all around us. All you have to do is listen.”
For a few years in the aughts, from Finding Neverland and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory to playing twins in The Spiderwick Chronicles, young Freddie Highmore dominated the family film market. But of all his performances, none struck a chord quite like Evan Taylor in August Rush, a modern retelling of Oliver Twist that sent audiences and critics in opposite directions. Curiously, the Rotten Tomatoes critics’ consensus laments that the stellar cast “cannot overcome the . . . schmaltzy plot,” but—not to appeal to authority—the plot is literally pulled from Dickens.
In the film, Evan runs away from his orphanage, longing to reunite with his musical parents (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers and Keri Russell), unaware that they too are yearning to reconnect. Evan arrives in New York City, where he befriends Arthur (Leon Thomas III), a streetwise street performer under the care of a man called “Wizard” (Robin Williams). Evan soon discovers a natural musical ability, and under the moniker “August Rush,” he journeys from Washington Square Park to Juilliard, convinced that following the music he hears around him will bring his family back together.
Although its plot is familiar, August Rush delivers new takes on the material, spliced with thematic mashups of both music and character. The opening number introduces Evan’s parents, blending Bach with a seedy rocker pub in unexpected consonance that drives the narrative tension. The complement-that-should-clash is a mirror of Evan’s eventual turns with the Fagin-esque crew, Reverend James’s parish, and the New York Philharmonic, culminating in an original rhapsody of all the movie’s previous themes—not just traditional musical tones but trash can lids, car horns, and the subway. Evan isn’t special only for the firmness of his hope for reunion but also for his unparalleled ability to find harmony in cacophony.
August Rush celebrates innovation and open-mindedness in music to an ambitious degree, not only between genres like classical, gospel, and rock ‘n roll, but in equally expressive stylings grounded in poetic lyrics or skilled instrumentals. The film’s contention is not merely that each approach can coexist in the same universe, or even on the same album, but in the same song. August Rush unlocks an appreciation for music both where you thought you knew to look for it (twelve-year-old me couldn’t comprehend the harmonic and percussive potential of guitar on display) as well as in the everyday rhythms of a larger world. The movie’s ability to capture naturally occurring sound and sculpt it into symphony is reminiscent of Erich Wolfgang Korngold, composer of 1938’s The Adventures of Robin Hood, who tuned his score to the key in which the actors were speaking.
August Rush reminds us that there is more potential in music than twelve notes as a basis for harmonic combinations, and that artistic expression, like truth, wisdom, or fulfillment, is not a matter of creation as much as it is discovery. And that’s why every musician should watch August Rush.