A dad who doesn’t like the commercialization of Christmas and resists decorating the house. A ten-year-old longing to spend the holiday with his singing grandpa. The memory of a fatal ice-skating accident. A mysterious, benevolent, white-bearded man who bestows gifts and wisdom and has the habit of cropping up only at dramatically convenient moments. Review by Bill O’Sullivan, NoDepression.com
Sounds like the type of blandly sentimental TV or direct-to-video “family” movie that’s a dime a dozen this time of year.
Close. But what if I told you this one—called Angels Sing—was shot in Austin, Texas, and has a heart of alt-country gold?
Along with its stars—the affable New Orleans-born singer/actor Harry Connick Jr. and Connie Britton, of TV’s Nashville and Friday Night Lights, an actress incapable of registering a phony emotion—the new film (available to stream now through Amazon Instant Video and on DVD December 10) features Willie Nelson, Lyle Lovett, Marcia Ball, Bruce Robison, Lavelle White, Kat Edmonson, Sara Hickman, the Trishas, and a host of other musicians, most in cameos but all adding a friendly, indie wink-wink to the otherwise largely formulaic proceedings.
Connick plays Michael, an Austin history professor married to Susan (Britton), and together they’re raising ten-year-old David (Chandler Canterbury). A loving, easygoing guy, Michael has one quirk: He doesn’t like to make much of Christmas, despite his son’s pining, his wife’s forbearance, and his extended family’s pleas to gather with them for the holiday at the San Antonio home of the grandparents, played by Kris Kristofferson and Fionnula Flanagan (an Irish actress credibly doing Southern).
That mysterious, sage old man? (Named Nick, of course.) That would be Willie Nelson, a welcome presence for his gameness and musical contributions, if not exactly for his acting. Lyle Lovett plays a kooky, holiday-sweater-wearing neighbor on the street where Connick and family move—a street, wouldn’t you know, notorious for its over-the-top holiday decor (“as seen on Oprah Winfrey’s Christmas special”), just the thing Michael can’t abide. Lovett—whose acting is about on a par with Nelson’s—makes his own beautiful music, including a duet of the Peanuts classic “Christmastime Is Here” with Kat Edmonson; his other saving grace is that endearing, almost childlike smile. Okay, I give in.
The movie, based on the novel When Angels Sing by Turk Pipkin (at left, with Nelson) and directed by Tim McCanlies, has a lot going for it as family entertainment beyond the quirky casting and musical interludes—mostly snippets interspersed with occasional full-length songs, from Marcia Ball, as Aunt Jocelyn, briefly heard banging out “Down by the Riverside” on piano at Thanksgiving (Michael doesn’t have any problem with that holiday) to Kristofferson’s relaxed rendition of Nelson’s “Pretty Paper” to a montage of neighbors crooning while delivering decorations to the new residents of their Christmas-obsessed street.
Make no mistake, this film doesn’t transcend its genre; it’s firmly of it. But you could do far worse if you’re looking for a PG-rated diversion (I would have guessed G) with mostly nice performances (some acting, many singing, a few both), a good number of smiles, a lesson or two, just enough sentiment, and a mix of musical voices familiar and new. Pay attention to the credits—like me, you might be introduced to some you didn’t know.
And yes, the soundtrack is reportedly forthcoming.