Overall Rating: B
Begin Again was directed by its writer John Carney, who has a proven track record of successful and emotional musical drama having also made Once. It was shot on an unannounced budget, giving off the impression that there hardly was one, on location in unique and romanticized spots throughout New York City. From rooftops, to alleyways, to subway platforms, to parks and parks and parks, Begin Again becomes a film on location, the urban, American version of the postcard picture, an angle that is often tedious and boring but has found a loving home here.
Let me explain. Begin Again was made by extremely talented people in a rather amateur style, short shooting schedule and all. It was made in the city streets, often with obvious authenticity (read: the background players didn’t come across as extras, because they probably were actual New Yorkers, walking their dogs, getting the groceries, at the end of their patience trying to catch a cab), and the naturalism of location shooting plays a huge role in building the atmosphere of the world these people – and the rest of us – inhabit. It follows an out-of-luck former head of a record company; he began his label because he wanted to look at things differently, but lost patience with his partner’s professional inertia. He meets a talented but unambitious songwriter, and together they fail to get signed to a record company, even the one Dan had founded. So, they decide to work on borrowed equipment with pro bono musicians and record an album on no budget on location. One song in an alley, with the children playing there recruited to sing backup; one song on rowboat in a Central Park pond, completed by the sound of oars hitting the water. If ever a film was a shameless tribute to itself – save perhaps Fellini’s masterful 8 1/2 – this is it. So if ever the cliched approach of the city playing a central role in the feel-good movie was actually a wise creative choice, this is also it.
Certainly out of sorts, we are introduced to the songwriter Gretta in the film’s opening scene at an East Village live music bar, when her friend makes her go on stage. She resists, obviously upset about something, but that emotion adds unexpected depth to her song. “This is for anyone who’s ever been alone in the city,” she says, before delving into a melodic and poetic love letter to everyday sadness. Appearing mid-song in the audience is an oddly enthused man, obviously drunk, who seems to hear more in the music than his fellow crowd members. This is Dan. And we come to find out he did in fact hear more, as his ear is as gifted as Gretta’s pencil.
The pair are played by Kiera Knightley and Mark Ruffalo, an oddly matched tandem that do accurately depict the perfect level of discomfort between the two that builds to sincere, close friendship. Knightley has directed her career toward this smaller, more character driven fare since getting her big break as the sexual, bold, proud Elizabeth Swan of Disney’s incredible Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy, but Gretta is still a uniquely restrained role for her. Her most celebrated turn of late came in a perhaps more thoughtful period drama A Dangerous Method, in which she employs her natural eroticism and knack for volatile physicality as a patient and love interest to Carl Jung. But in Begin Again, her most precious moments come alone at a microphone, or quietly admiring a fellow performer. Ruffalo, rich with indie tradition in spite of his being Marvel’s newest Hulk, is very much himself again. Loose, disoriented and lost but in a sympathetic and funny way seems to be his specialty. Whether it’s struggling with losing grasp of his business, or struggling to define a relationship with his biological children (The Kids are Alright), or coping with the embarrassment of failing on the job because he can’t keep it in his pants (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) he is at home with inadequacy.
And it is their characters that make the movie work, and what allow it to celebrate its larger themes. Really, outside of the characters and the aforementioned subliminal implications, there is not a lot that makes Begin Again worth your time. The supporting characters are straight out of cliche and creative choices like the title type are weak and uninspired. The dialogue even, which is often truly excellent, has moments that read like nothing more than a string of tag lines passed back and forth. But the characters perfectly embody the spirit of the picture. They both, in spite of their reserved and hesitant projections show a physical reaction, a unique and contagious thrill for music. This is a credit to the leads. Even in her weakest moments, Knightley’s Gretta cannot help but let loose a momentary grin when she gets to play her song, and Ruffalo’s Dan is magetically drawn out of his chair, almost looking like it is against his will, by hearing it.
The movie was originally titled “Can A Song Save Your Life?,” and it seeks to prove that the answer, at least for these two, is yes. After the lonely moment in the club, where a broken Gretta plays and a more-broken Dan listens, we dial back in time. The movie has a handful of these “how did we get here” sequences. In the first, Dan loses his job and a little dignity with it. Or a lot of dignity. When he arrives in the club that night and hears Gretta perform, he tells her that he had been standing on a subway platform thinking of killing himself, “and then I heard your song.” She won’t sign a label though, as she doesn’t think of herself as an actual musician. Besides, she’s returning to native England in the morning. No one would just up-and-leave New York without something terrible happening, and her flashback sequence begins. Her long time boyfriend, played by Maroon 5 frontman Adam Levine, has made it big and is leaving her behind – for more chart friendly songs, for more exotic women, for the rockstar life in general. When she was asked to play at the club, singing and songwriting was the furthest thing from what she wanted.
So yes, there is nothing terribly original about these backstories, but the thrill of the remainder of the plot makes up for it. In one of the film’s few simply bad moments in its storytelling, the two decide how to handle the rejection of the record plea by deciding they’ll record an album outside. This moment arrives way too fast for me, a judgement lapse in the story’s development. But it all leads to the movie hitting the gas pedal. After going through a pre-production process that every indie filmmaker, including Carney, might find painfully familiar, they step to, and their relationship develops.
That is not to say that Begin Again is a romance. It is a romance only in the sense that The Silence of the Lambs is a romance. In no way are Lecter and Clarice in love romantically, they both need one another. Beyond being a launching pad for his escape plans, Lecter needed Clarice for a conversation companion, a cure to his boredom, a friendly face for the first time in nearly a decade. Clarice used her relationship with the killer to advance her career, yes, but also found solace with the monster, an oral sparring partner because of whom she opens up about her buried past. Dan and Gretta too need one another, and not just for the purposes of making music. They spend a night going through Gretta’s music library, dancing through New York to a variety of tunes that include, of all things, “As Time Goes By,” from one of Gretta’s (and mine) “favorite films.” They loose their emotions on one another, and lean on one another, looking eye-to-eye and sitting shoulder-to-shoulder as lovers might, but only because everybody needs somebody, and they are who they’ve got.
I would be amiss not to comment on the tunes in a film that places so much weight on music. Beginning with the pop music of Gretta’s star ex-boyfriend Dave Kohl (either a really unsubtle reference to Nirvana drummer and Foo Fighters frontman Dave Grohl, or a really weird coincidence), who climbs to the top at the sacrifice of his musical integrity. He records a song with Gretta in a flashback with only her voice, a piano and an acoustic guitar, shot on a camcorder. Now, full beard and all, his songs are being rearranged for the top-40 listener and he’s accepting phony awards on YouTube. They are well performed by the immensely talented Levine, because, well, they sound just like the recent work of Levine and Maroon 5. But Gretta’s music, the music of consequence in the film, struck and impressed me like few other original, diegetic soundtracks have. The music for the film was written by Gregg Alexander, who earned this name drop. The music is not just good. In fact, it isn’t actually that great. But it is right. Knightley too deserves credit for her performance in the musical scenes for not being too good (I’m sure she’s capable), but for dropping in a realistic amount of cracks and down beats. If Alexander’s music were not good, the film might be unbearable, but if it were too good, we wouldn’t be able to believe that she had been cast aside not once, but twice by labels. That’s the best word, the music is Right.
In the film’s most romantic and rewarding moment, the band plays on a Manhattan rooftop, the Empire State Building not far in the background. Dan and his daughter grab instruments and tag along, the sun sets over the course of the scene. It is the embodiment of the movie in only a handful of minutes. It is about the healing power of music, about family and, with the chiming in of a neighbor requesting they “quiet the fuck down,” it is unapologetically New York.
The penultimate song in the movie is called “Lost Stars.” While the characters note that music industry people – a rock journalist, a pop sensation – do not make good life partners, an obvious metaphor with the song’s title, I thought of something a little different, about the way the movie acts as a bit of a love letter to it’s host city. In New York, there are many things. Record companies, live-music venues, and much, much more. But in all of the bells and whistles, the bright lights and ticker-tape glamour, there are no stars. The simplest of nature’s gifts, the ability to tilt your head back and stare into the mysterious and awe-inspiring abyss broken by the distant glitter of stars, a great reminder that you are part of something more, is lost to the ever-lit city.