For months, experts have hammered home a critical point: the US’s disastrous handling of the coronavirus pandemic – the testing debacle, the politicization of mask wearing, a new surge of infections sweeping across the country – was not inevitable.
But to cynical observers what was perhaps inevitable was that Hollywood executives would try to wring the collective trauma of Covid-19 for entertainment purposes and big bucks.
Enter: the trailer for Songbird, the first feature filmed in Los Angeles since quarantine, which has sparked criticism as a tone-deaf “horror movie” about an ongoing horror that America – and the world – is still experiencing.
Songbird, directed by Adam Mason and produced by Michael Bay – , AKA the guy known for directing bombastic blockbusters like Transformers, Pearl Harbor and Armageddon – portrays a love story between Nico (Riverdale’s KJ Apa) and Sara (Sofia Carson) during America’s 214th week of lockdown in 2024, as a late-stage version of “Covid-23” mutates to infect people’s brains.
The film appears to extract the worst of the past six months, strip it of sensitivity and then paint it on doubly thick in big-budget, Hollywoodized, exaggerated style. In the trailer a Los Angeles billboard ticks up to 8.4m deaths, infected Americans are forced into quarantine camps, and sanitation “police” raid homes for suspected patients.
This shoehorning of a real and ongoing tragedy which has killed 229,000 Americans and counting has not gone down well with some still in the grips of the pandemic, which is to say: the moviegoing American public outside of Hollywood.
“Making a ‘dystopian horror movie’ about a horror that is real and happening RIGHT NOW is so tone deaf,” tweeted @scallywap. “And so not what people need. So many people have lost jobs, livelihoods and loved ones due to COVID, and everyone’s life has been severely effected [sic]. Bad, bad, bad move.”
“Even by Michael Bay standards, SONGBIRD is a choice. Looks like true exploitation cinema the likes of which we rarely get these days,” tweeted the Ringer’s Sean Fennessey.
Songbird was conceived by Mason and writing partner Simon Boyes early in the pandemic. The two developed a 12-page “call to arms” over the weekend that New York went into lockdown, Mason told Entertainment Weekly, which Mason then sent to producer Adam Goodman with the email subject line “Crazy Idea!”. Goodman and Bay were signed on the next day.
The feature was the first to restart filming in Los Angeles on 8 July, with safety protocols such as frequent testing, a streamlined crew of maximum 40 people daily and separation of actors. Still, the production was slapped with a Sag-Aftra “do not work order” days before filming because producers were “not transparent about their safety protocols”. The order was rescinded on 2 July, which allowed filming to proceed.
Songbird is not the only Hollywood project to use quarantine as inspiration and attempt entertainment out of collective trauma - Freeform’s Love in the Time of Corona, NBC’s Connecting …, and Netflix’s Social Distance all took the pandemic as a prerequisite, to mixed critical reviews.
But whereas those shows strained to find insight out of a certain slice of quarantine – those who could afford to stay home, the early days of containment – Songbird looks toward a stylized, worse future as popcorn entertainment and also appears to play into some of the worst rightwing conspiracy theories over government using the pandemic to exert control over people.
“It’s a dystopian, scary world, but it’s a romantic movie about two people who want to be together, but they can’t,” Mason told Entertainment Weekly. “It’s Romeo and Juliet, but they’re separated by her front door and by the virus.”
Regardless of intent, the use of a pandemic which continues to shatter families has rankled some who remember the very different handling of another tragedy, indelible to the national psyche. “remember when 9/11 happened and films refrained from using the WTC for a while out of respect?” tweeted @LeimartCreative. “flash forward two decades and people are so irreverent now when even worse tragedy hits; there’s a michael bay thriller about it AS WE’RE GOING THRU THE EVENT.”