Warning: Spoilers for Marriage Story ahead.
Noah Baumbach's Marriage Story walks into a bar and Adam Driver breaks into song. In the final act of the dramedy, now streaming on Netflix, Driver's character Charlie, a theater director, laments about his divorce over a couple of beers. He opens up to his theater company about the high cost of ending things with Nicole (Scarlett Johansson), both monetarily and emotionally. However, it's a Stephen Sondheim song that best exemplifies what Charlie's feeling.
In the midst of detailing the messiness of a split that left him couch-less, Charlie abruptly gets up, grabs the mic and starts belting out Sondheim's "Being Alive," from the 1970 music Company. The way Charlie gets up to sing, it almost feels like a comedy routine. Perhaps, that is because this same song gets a good laugh in Lady Bird, directed by Greta Gerwig, Baumbach's partner. (The Gerwig-Baumbach household is clearly a Sondheim one.) But then the camera zooms in on Charlie, baring his soul with every word of "Being Alive." It's his story.
Company is about Robert, a stubborn bachelor who isn't looking to settle down until he comes to the conclusion that being alone is really no way to live. On the eve of his 35th birthday, Robert sings about "someone to hold me too close/ Someone to hurt me too deep/Someone to sit in my chair/And ruin my sleep/And make me aware." He sounds disdainful at first. He wants a good eight hours of uninterrupted sleep, dammit. But as the song continues, he has a breakthrough.
It comes with help from a Greek chorus of his friends and family urging him to "want something, want something." Instead of living in fear of rejection or failure they encourage him to put himself out there. "Don't be afraid that it won't be perfect, buddy," he's told. "The only thing to be afraid of really is that it won't be."
What Robert figures out in the span of five minutes is there is so much more to marriage and commitment than a few sleepless nights. "Somebody crowd me with love/Somebody force me to care," he sings longingly in the final verse. "Somebody make me come through/I'll always be there."
For his rendition, Charlie takes on every part of the song, giving viewers a glimpse into his mind post-divorce. It's a wake-up call in multi-part harmony. A rebuke, sung slightly off-kilter. "It’s good because it’s human," Baumbach told Indie Wire of Driver's singing. "I wanted the song to have the same function songs do in musicals: the character arrives at another place by the end of the song."
Charlie's bar rendition of "Being Alive" is less ambivalent and more cathartic than the original. After all the cross country lawyer visits and second Halloweens, he now has hindsight. Charlie's spontaneous musical moment is him at his most honest, his most vulnerable. He gains conviction over the course of the song, which ends with a teary-eyed epiphany. "He’s playing catch up," Driver told IndieWire, "and it’s not until this spontaneous moment happens…does he really start to process not that love is gone, but that it’s a transition through something else."
For all the superficial things he lost in the divorce like that couch, he finally has his moment of clarity. He finally become aware of what he really lost when he lost Nicole: a true collaborator in love, work, and life who is willing to push him and call him on his bullshit. It's rather fitting that a theater director needed an "I Want" song to make him appreciative of what he once had. Now he is all alone and as Sondheim wrote, "alone is alone, not alive." But, like Joni Mitchell once said, you don't know what you got 'till it's gone.
"Being Alive" is Company's big finale, but Sondheim always thought it was a "cop-out." Robert realising he wants to get married felt like "too small a moment" in his opinion. In Baumbach's film, the song feels monumental. It's the coda to Charlie's marriage story. Like the show, his life must go on — and it does, as we see in the film's actual final moments. But things are different now, they can't stay the same. He can't stay the same after coming this far.
With this song, Charlie realises that he had something special and he let it fade away, but he now knows what he wants and needs. He must now start over on his own, which is scary and exhilarating, confusing and inspiring. Just like being alive.
Marriage Story is available on Netflix now