Little Voice review: Sara Bareilles' Apple TV+ show gets tangled up in its subplots
Sara Bareilles and Jessie Nelson have co-created Little Voice for Apple TV+
Bess King (Brittany O’Grady), a young singer-songwriter from New York City with stars in her eyes and a bagful of tunes in tow, is the heroine of the new Apple TV+ show Little Voice by Sara Bareilles and Jessie Nelson, creators of Broadway musical Waitress.
Our leading lady makes ends meet as a cover singer, a dog walker, a bartender and as a music teacher to kids with wealthy parents.
Despite the evident financial strains, she manages to live in a spacious apartment, straight out of a Pinterest mood board. Bess shares this house with Prisha (Shalini Bathina), also a musician (in a mariachi band), who is still in the closet and pushed by her enthusiastic Indian-immigrant parents into finding a suitable groom. While Bess’s mother is not in the picture, her father is a faded musician with an alcohol problem (Chuck Cooper), and she has a co-dependent relationship with her autistic brother Louie (Kevin Valdez), a goldmine of Broadway trivia.
Music forms the backbone of the show, and Bess's pursuit of making a dent in the industry is encapsulated in varying doses in every episode. She's almost always seen writing down her inner-most thoughts in a notebook; she scribbles while taking a music lesson or sitting on a park bench and the train back home. We also find out about her reluctance to perform onstage, how she lost her "little voice" after a bad open mic experience. Bess is painted as an underdog, but it isn’t the world conspiring against her, just her self-imposed restrictions hindering her confidence. Worry not, the show has a happy ending.
Bareilles wrote and composed nine original tracks, easy singalong ballads, for the show, sung by O'Brady. The novelty of the tunes soon wear off and they all frustratingly sound the same. Besides, it seems slightly disingenuous that whenever Bess is struck with inspiration, her songs always flow seamlessly with studio-quality perfection.
Little Voice finds beauty in the bustling, fast-paced metropolis of New York as a place that echoes with melody. We see Bess walk past a jazz saxophonist, Prisha's all-female mariachi band's performance, a cellist serenely playing a Bach composition and Bess harmonising with her father's blues acapella group in the subway. Emily King, Ben Abraham, Sarah Jarosz and New York-based musician Jeff Taylor also make cameos as performers at the club where Bess bartends.
There is a rom-com angle introduced early in the show, when Bess encounters the handsome British filmmaker Ethan (Sean Teale), her next-door-neighbour in the storage facility she rents. He's instantly floored by her music, they share a moment where she confesses her songs may be "earnest" in comparison to the preferences of the Spotify generation. Unsurprisingly, Ethan turns out to have a girlfriend who moved continents to be with him, but that does not stop Bess yearning for him. Soon appears another potential love interest, her back-up guitarist, the sweet, sweet Samuel (Colton Ryan). She ignores his longing glances and how he seems to bend over backwards for her.
Little Voice is brimming with hope and optimism to the point of being nauseating. For every setback Bess faces, she is able to take a step forward with her friends and everyone else's unwavering support. They all seem ready to halt their schedules for her pet projects, regardless of her tendency to take them for granted.
The story gets tangled up in its subplots — Prisha's sexuality, Bess's mother's absence, dream sequences that inspire her songwriting process (in Episode 7 "Ghost Light") and the romances. Though Apple has slotted the series in the comedy category, there aren't many chuckle-worthy moments. Louie's attempts at vlogging his Broadway enthusiasm with his roommates from his group home do provide some light, endearing moments.
The show takes digs at the music industry that only wants to churn out one-size-fits-all tunes like when Bess frowns at a song absurdly titled 'Dance is My Lung' in Benny's (Philip Johnson Richardson) car after an unsatisfactory meeting with a music executive. Her multiple meetings at record companies prove unfruitful — "Your music is just...darling"; "You're just a voice. Imagine when you're singing songs by a real songwriter." Maybe Little Voice also wants to relay a message of never conforming (possibly inspired from Bareilles' personal journey) even in the face of multiple rejections.
Little Voice is a well-intentioned show, a light watch, which gets clumsy along the way. Fans of Bareilles' heartfelt music, coming-of-age genre buffs, and even a younger audience (under parental supervision) may enjoy it the most.
The first three episodes of Little Voice are now streaming on Apple TV+.
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