A beaten down record company A&R man makes one last stand. As his admiring love interest and sickly father look on, he faces down the band he absolutely must sign to keep his job. “You’re an actual fucking rock band. Drums, guitar, bass, vocals,” he says as if describing the height of musical achievement. “But then you add all this other shit you don’t even need. Yeah, you’re selling albums, but to who? People that pay attention to fucking commercials.”
That’s what happens an hour into Kodachrome, Netflix’s new road trip movie starring Jason Sudeikis (as the A&R man), Ed Harris (as the sickly dad who’s also kind of a bastard), and Elizabeth Olsen (as the nurse/love interest). It’s an incredibly familiar scene in an incredibly familiar movie that mournfully observes the death of Kodachrome film through the eyes of a music industry veteran in the process of being made obsolete by the march of progress and technology (see what they did there?).
Some backstory: In 2010, The New York Times published an article about people from all around the world descending on the small prairie town of Parsons, Kansas just to have their pictures developed. Kodak stopped producing the chemicals needed to process Kodachrome film a year earlier, by which point there were very few photo labs still capable of handling Kodachrome anyway. Eventually, Dwayne’s Photo in Parsons was the last lab standing, and the Times sent A.G. Sulzberger to observe and write about the finals days before the Kodachrome chemicals ran out:
Among the recent visitors was Steve McCurry, a photographer whose work has appeared for decades in National Geographic including his well-known cover portrait, shot in Kodachrome, of a Afghan girl that highlights what he describes as the “sublime quality” of the film. When Kodak stopped producing the film, the company gave him the last roll, which he hand-delivered to Parsons. “I wasn’t going to take any chances,” he explained.
In screenwriter Jonathan Tropper’s hands, that quick little aside from Sulzberger turned into a by-the-numbers script about Benjamin Ryder, a famous, but emotionally distant and now cancer-suffering photographer who coerces his reluctant son Matt into taking a road trip with him and his nurse Zoe to Parsons. Ben’s connections are the only way Matt will get that crucial meeting with a band in Chicago. Will he blow it? Will they even make it to Parsons to get Ben’s final roll of film developed?
Of course, we know the physical destinations don’t matter since Ben and Matt are clearly heading to Heartbreakville, USA, a place where fathers and sons mend fences, share misadventures, and build up to maybe saying goodbye. It’s also a place where women exist mostly to represent hope for the sad guy at the heart of the story (to be fair, Zoe earns a third-act reveal about the truth of her own tortured backstory, but even that plays to expectations).
To put it another way: Kodachrome won’t exactly surprise you. It sticks entirely to formula. The only shock is simply that it doesn’t lean quite as heavy into sentiment as it easily could have. That’s not necessarily terrible. There’s a certain comfort in the familiar, and Kodachrome is at least a competent, well-acted, engagingly put together version of a film we’ve seen a thousand times before.
But Kodachrome also feels as stuck as its central character: Matt sings the praises of a forgotten alt-rock gem like Live’s “Lightning Crashes,” admonishes a rock band for experimenting with new instrumentation, listens to Pearl Jam on the radio so intently he never fully turns the song down when Zoe starts talking to him, and pulls a full Don Draper in the end with a tearful salute to the power of the Kodak carousel. All of this lends Kodachrome the feel of a film which seems to be in complete agreement Matt’s view of how great things used to be. It prevents Kodachrome from transcending convention and truly rethinking what’s been done before. However, perhaps that’s entirely fitting for a film about the death of an era.
THE BOTTOM LINE
The charm of Kodachrome is they just don’t make movies like this anymore – the road trip, the old guy who offends with every word he says, the Garden State notion of music that can change lives, the tortured dude and his big third act speech displaying his emotional growth, the girl mostly just there to represent salvation. The push/pull is maybe there’s a reason these stories and tropes fell out of fashion.
RANDOM PARTING THOUGHTS
- How did a small budget movie like this end up using nearly the entirety of Pearl Jam’s “Just Breathe” during one crucial scene? Simple: they paid for it. Even simpler: Jason Sudeikis is friends with Eddie Vedder and that connection got the production a more affordable rate.
- The movie wisely wastes no time in acknowledging that, yes, there’s a famous Paul Simon song called “Kodachrome.”
- For a far better example of the death-of-the-A&R-man story, I highly recommend Begin Again.
- Daniel Howat on Letterboxd nailed this: “There’s massive irony that Netflix releases a movie that laments the death of film. These characters would HATE that their movie didn’t play in theaters.” There’s even more to it than that, though. Kodachrome was originally set up by producer Shawn Levy at 20th Century Fox where it was indeed going to be a traditional studio dramedy with a theatrical release. It ended up having to be made as an indie and was purchased by Netflix at the 2017 Toronto Film Festival.
- For those who’ve never seen it, here’s the “Lightning Crashes” music video referenced in the movie: