Dir: Adam Mason; Starring: KJ Apa, Sofia Carson, Demi Moore, Bradley Whitford, Peter Stormare, Alexandra Daddario, Craig Robinson, Paul Walter Hauser. 15 cert, 92 mins.
Some truly extraordinary films have been made this year during lockdown by such esteemed auteurs as Pedro Almodóvar, Jonathan Glazer, Paolo Sorrentino and Michael Bay. Wait, Michael Bay? Yes, Michael Bay: director of Armageddon, The Rock and five Transformers films; Capra of carnage; Bergman of bombast; Fellini of fell-agrant mass destruction.
In late March, a pitch from the British screenwriting duo Adam Mason and Simon Boyes landed on Bay’s desk, for a dystopian action thriller set during the coronavirus pandemic. Bay evidently liked what he read because the following day, he signed up to produce it – and in July, it became the first feature to start shooting in Los Angeles since the city shut down four months beforehand. The result – directed by Mason, but stylistically indebted to Bay in almost every respect – has just squeaked into cinemas and onto VOD before the end of the year.
Naturally, concerns were expressed about exactly how tasteless this thing was going to be. Well, allow me to set your mind at ease: Songbird is even more spectacularly crass and exploitative than you could have possibly hoped. It’s 2023 – year four of lockdown – and the novel coronavirus has mutated into a new, supremely deadly airborne strain that can kill in 24 hours flat. Citizens are obliged to test themselves for the virus every day with some kind of mobile app, and those who fail are dragged off to plague-ridden concentration camps called Q Zones by armed guards in Hazmat suits.
Los Angeles is presided over by the city’s now untouchably powerful Department of Sanitation, led by Peter Stormare’s Emmett Harland – a rotund, damp-browed sociopath and seeming descendent of Orson Welles’s corrupt police captain in Touch of Evil. Yet the city is only surviving thanks to its underclass of ‘muneys’ – those with natural immunity to the virus, who work as delivery drivers, but must live alone since they spend their days submerged in Covid.
Our hero Nico (Riverdale’s KJ Apa) is one of them. This hunky bicycle courier is trying to obtain an immunity pass for his girlfriend Sara (Sofia Carson), whom he’s not seen in person since lockdown first came in. Handily, two of his regular customers are operating a black-market racket: a lecherous record executive and his glamorous wife, played by Bradley Whitford and Demi Moore.
But the going rate for these yellow wristbands is in the low six figures, and Whitford in particular isn’t the type to give a good-looking kid a break with no strings attached. In fact, he has a recent signee – Alexandra Daddario’s May, the songbird of the title – cooped up in a tiny apartment nearby, where she sings online for tips by day and performs sexual favours for her boss at night.
The film is diverting enough as an old-fashioned exploitation movie, but genuinely impressive as an up-to-the-minute work of lockdown pop art. The empty cityscapes are eerily evocative, the action dynamic, and there’s a resourcefulness running though the project that’s hard not to applaud. (Even though they share most of their scenes, the editing suggests Moore and Whitford may never have been in the same room together – though that could just be the Bay style at work.)
The decision to make a delivery driver the hero is also a sharp one, even if it does lead to lines like “I realise now we weren’t just delivering packages, we were delivering hope.” Songbird itself delivers an enjoyably tactless jolt of trash-cinema bravado.
Songbird is in cinemas and on demand from December 11