“My robot friend” and the emotional baggage of the songs

“My robot friend” and the emotional baggage of the songs

Central Park, New York. The Twin Towers stand out in the skyline of the city that you can feel (and maybe it really is) the centre of the world. They are a monument, a building that doubles, not (yet) an ominous omen.
Among the benches and trees of the green lung of the metropolis, an anthropomorphic dog and an android put roller skates on their feet and they begin dancing to the tune of “September” by Earth, Wind & Fire. It is the most euphoric and enthralling moment of 90 minutes in which the song recurs several times, intertwines with other songs and genres that they tell the musical and artistic mix of New York in the 80s.

The real one, in which you heard the notes of the Cuban song “A Bailar el Son” by the Venezuelan Canelita Medina, in which you could come across the punk group Reagan Youth singing “I Hate Hate”. It is also the one we have all experienced through films that have transfigured it on the big screen. In the film we hear some traces of the Feelies, a cult band of the 80s: cited by REM as an influence (so much so that Peter Buck who later produced one of their albums), so loved by director Jonathan Demme that he included many songs in his own films of the era.

A dog, a robot and the power of a killer song

The key song of “My robot friend” – which arrives in theaters today 4 April – however remains “September”, because it is the song of the protagonist couple, made up of a dog and his robot friend. Dog is an anthropomorphic dog who suffers from loneliness in a megalopolis inhabited by a myriad of different animals. Robot is the android that buys and assembles in search of a meaningful bond with which to fill his life. The one told by the film is an experience that we have all had. Sooner or later emotional memory presents the bill to every adult who has lived long enough to know the end of a relationship. We turn the page, we rebuild, and we change (so as not to die, Fiorella Mannoia docet).

Except then, suddenly, while you're at the supermarket doing the shopping or driving with the car radio on or the playlist set to random play, an old song can resurface and stab you in the back with a razor-sharp blade made of memories. Blade that fillets a present that seemed cohesive, united, compact, satisfying, sticking old memories under the skin in the here and now, starting a spiral of “what if?”.

“My Robot Friend” prefers music to dialogue

The characterization of the protagonists of My Robot Friend is casual. The protagonist couple is so generic in description and physical characterization that it should be extended to the maximum the spectrum of relationships in which to review the story of Dog and Robot. The two do not really have a sex, they have no voice, they share a deep bond but not delimited by a definition. They could be family, friends, lovers, spouses. The film by Spaniard Pablo Berger, nominated for the 2023 Oscars in the best animated film category, outlines that mnemonic trap destined to spring for any adult.

With its airy features and adorable character design that recalls a bit of Futurama and a bit of Hergé's Tintin, “My Robot Friend” lends itself to being underestimated by an audience that experiences animation mainly through the Disney monopoly and tends to associate it with an audience made up of children and adolescents. Those who know Pablo Berger will not be surprised to discover that this film has no dialogue. It relies completely on music and animation to tell its story, reaching emotional heights that shake the viewer.

Always fascinated by the silent cinema of the 1920s, Berger brings to the big screen a graphic novel that tells, in images but without words, a key experience of adulthood. That of vanishing of a relationship from everyday life, replaced by others, sometimes through a long painful emotional process of catharsis. Catharsis that “My robot friend” is not photographed with in an animated shot of the author, but helps to deal with him through his story. AND a film that leaves you uplifted in spiritbut also tired in body, because it unleashes a great emotional intensity in those who recognize their own feelings in Dog and Robot.

Talking about change, in all its nuances

The film opens with the story of loneliness exacerbated by life in a large, crowded and always noisy city, whose soundscape has been reconstructed from scratch by Fabiola Ordoyo, Berger's historic collaborator. This is followed by the dreamlike dimension in which Robot explores the feeling of nostalgia for Dog, now far away, tinged with jealousy, defeatism and self-pity. Told in segments it seems to be a tragic, very sad film, but it is quite the opposite. “My robot friend” tells passages that are also painful because he is a film that embraces change and the positive things it brings with it, once it is accepted. It then focuses on a change of the most destabilizing ones: the involuntary one compared to our desires, unavoidable, sudden.

Rarely has it been told with such effectiveness and power in the cinema the trap of the song that emerges from the past and triggers a very powerful flashback, followed by nostalgia and regret. It is a power that music brings with it and that “My robot friend” manages to link to a carefree and well-known song, widely used in cinema and on TV, loading it with an unforgettable narrative arc. Especially for its landing place. Of course there are moments of difficulty, but that turning of the page allows us to objectively weigh past and present, understanding how much good the former has left us, how much better we have built in the latter.

Pablo Berger gets in there too his emotional present, always through music. Alongside this mixtape of songs with divergent cultural and musical influences taken from the 80s (the Mecca of musical nostalgia) is an original soundtrack, made of soft and emotional jazz sounds. To compose it is his partner and collaborator Yuko Haramiwho he met in the New York of the 80s that he describes in the film.

The building where Dog lives is a copy of the one Berger lived in at the time, a small clue to understand how much personal and intimate there is in a story which is then universal for the adult audience. This because tells with sincerity and humanity a crisis that sooner or later we all know, perhaps triggered by a song. Then explaining to us that, by working on one's present, no song must remain a taboo, because every change can be faced and overcome.

“My Robot Friend” arrives in Italian cinemas on April 4, 2024.