Everyone thinks 11-year-old Evan Taylor is a strange child. He hears music in everything—the wind, the grass, electrical lines and traffic. So much so that he gets completely caught up in it. And he can’t keep quiet about it. That would be enough to make him an outcast among any group of peers, but in the orphanage where he has spent his entire life, it makes him an outright target for bullies.
Evan insists that the music he hears is his connection to his parents, whom he has never known. On that inspiration, he runs away from the children’s home to search for them. He doesn’t know who they are. He doesn’t know where they are. He doesn’t even know if they’re still together. But he’s determined that the music inside will lead him to them.
Along the way, he falls in with Wizard, an unsettling cross between U2’s Bono and Oliver Twist‘s Fagan. Wizard is an entrepreneur of sorts who allows a band of child musicians to live with him in a condemned theater. In return, he gets the lion’s share of the money they make playing music on the street in New York City. Under Wizard’s tutelage, Evan discovers that he’s not strange—he’s just strangely gifted. In fact, he’s a musical prodigy in the image of Mozart. He adopts the stage name August Rush and quickly becomes Wizard’s biggest moneymaker.
He eventually scores a spot at Juilliard, where the full scope of his talent is unleashed. Wizard isn’t happy about August’s formal training, though, and the two part company. But for August, the kind of musical training he receives isn’t what’s important. For one, he’s compelled to make music, and the method hardly matters. Even more than that, the music is a means to a better end. No matter how much notoriety he receives for his genius, music will never really fulfill him unless it leads him to his parents.
August Rush‘s driving force is the title character’s unwavering belief that his parents do want him. This optimism sustains him and pushes him forward in hopes of the reunion of his disjoined family.
Several adults come into August’s life as positive, encouraging influences. Not the least of these is Richard Jeffries. His job at the Department of Child Services is, for Jeffries at least, much more than a job. He goes out of his way to help August, even giving the boy his phone number and telling him to call if he ever needs anything.
Much attention is given to the power of music and the beauty that exists in the world around us, if we will only recognize it. The fact that August is ultimately encouraged to develop his gift, rather than stifling it, might prompt children in the audience to do the same.
Several lines pertaining to music sound vaguely spiritual. For example, August says, “The music is everywhere. All you have to do is open yourself up,” and, “It’s a harmonic connection between everyone in the universe, including the stars.” One comment makes a direct connection between music and the divine: “Music is God’s reminder that there’s something besides us in this universe.”
After he runs away from the orphanage and from Wizard, August stumbles into a downtown church where a gospel choir is practicing. A sign there says, “God is love.” August strikes up a friendship with Hope, a cute soloist about his age, and with the Reverend Jay, who is an intelligent, strong, kindhearted father figure to both kids. Jay’s church houses homeless people and feeds them. He’s also proactive about getting August into Juilliard. When a crisis arises in the boy’s life, the pastor says to Hope, “I prayed for him. Did you?”
In a flashback, we see August’s young parents meet, hold hands and kiss—all in the space of about five minutes. It’s implied that they also have sex that same night. Visually, though, the scene is relatively discreet: Audiences see the two wake up in bed together, and they are both fully clothed. Later, August’s father describes the encounter as “the most incredible night of my life.” Other teens are shown making out in a stairwell at a party.
Two young-adult brothers get into a disagreement that leads to a wrestling match and ends with one of them getting punched in the face. August runs out in front of a car and is hit, but not hard. It’s implied that another character is hit by a car—hard enough to do serious damage. Wizard pulls a knife on one of the boys in the theater. Later, he tackles a police officer. In retaliation for his cruelty and selfishness, Arthur, one of the other children who lives in Wizard’s theater, breaks a guitar over Wizard’s head and knocks him out.
Crudities “h—” and “a–” are each spoken once; “d–n” a handful of times (primarily by a child). God’s name is misused once, and the phrase “good lordy” also pops up once. The expression “holy …” trails off midway through.
Band members share beers at a party. Arthur tells August that he’s homeless because his “pops was a drunk” and his “mama took off with a crackhead named Little Jesus.”
August endures constant bullying at the orphanage. Mean tactics employed by his persecutors include waking him up in the middle of the night, pinning him to the wall and pounding their fists near his head to scare him, teasing him about his desire to find his parents, and making his friend call him a “freak” to his face. Even a teacher verbally picks on August and his friend for being different.
Though he inspires August when it comes to music, Wizard is not the most wholesome bandleader. He puts the kids down, and repeatedly tells Arthur that he’s a “piece of work.” Once, he grabs August by the shirt and pushes him against a wall. Arthur tells August that Wizard stole the guitar he’s playing.
Flashback scenes involving August’s mother, Lyla, and her father show her dad being verbally harsh toward the teenage girl. [Spoiler Warning] Because of a medical emergency surrounding his delivery, Lyla thinks August died at birth. It turns out that her father forged her signature, sent the boy to the orphanage and lied to his daughter about the whole thing.
With equal parts Amadeus, Oliver Twist, Sleepless in Seattle and Mr. Holland’s Opus, August Rush has quite an ambitious plot. It aims to rescue a child from an orphanage, develop him into a talented composer and reunite his broken family, all in just under two hours.
Truth be told, it feels like the moviemakers were trying a little too hard to pull this off, and the story’s movement from one major development to the next sometimes feels contrived because of it. That, plus a few interjections of offensive language and an implied premarital sexual encounter create some disharmony for those seeking truly family-friendly entertainment.
On the other side of the scale, the original score by Mark Mancina is an engaging mosaic of found sound (which is just what it seems to be—sounds not originally intended as music that become musical when a composer uses them deliberately in a piece). Mancina’s work weaves together with the storyline to show how the music inside August finally gets out and becomes a finished composition. On top of that, this film has a good heart—one that values undying loyalty, perseverance, the development of natural talent in children and the preservation of families.
Finally, the connections and near-connections between music and spirituality are worth exploring. At one point, August says of his internal melody, “It’s like someone is calling to me. Writing it all down is like calling back to them … the ones who gave me the music.” He credits his parents (who both turn out to be quite musical) with giving him this gift, but the leap could easily be made to helping young music lovers/moviegoers understand that God is the giver of all good gifts and that using the gifts He gave us is our gift back to Him.