by Philip Price
I am a sucker for movies that deal with the creation of music or the business of it in any way and so it is with fair warning that I say I delightfully indulged in the charms of “Begin Again”. I suppose there is nothing really wrong with indulgences when they come from director John Carney and contain talent such as Mark Ruffalo, Keira Knightley, Catherine Keener and what is hopefully only another notch in a string of performances that will eventually lead to a major breakout for James Corden. Carney broke onto the scene in 2006 with his simple, music-infused love story that was “Once” and even garnered his stars Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová an original song Oscar. Now, I have admittedly not made it around to seeing “Once,” but understand it to be a much slower, more meditative experience than this more mainstream, pop confection that illustrates the pure bliss of the moments in music that cause you to soar. I read an interesting quote from director Richard Linklater a few weeks ago where he talked about how he felt more like an extra in a movie during the big moments of his life; ones first kiss, graduation, weddings, funerals and the idea that none of these events actually belong to you, but that you are simply cast in them. I find this interesting because it says a lot about the basic human instinct of how we reflect and classify our memories and more importantly the memories that are intended to be significant. What brought this quote to mind is that “Begin Again” operates in the moments that aren't intended to be major, but instead stem from a more natural, organic place that leave a mark on your life that belongs solely to you. They aren't moments everyone might share, but are specifically tailored to the experience of life that you have created for yourself and only register as such when you're in the middle of them and you realize it is a piece of time you will never forget. I can imagine it was difficult for Carney to nail down exactly how he might convey those types of complex emotions and the nostalgia and sentimentality that comes along with them while presenting a present situation, but “Begin Again” not only illustrates his love for music, but why music is so integral in making these moments real, heartfelt memories.
There was a certain air of not knowing what to expect around “Begin Again” which was originally titled “Can A Song Save Your Life?” when it premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival last fall. The critical reception was lukewarm as I assume many expected something more along the lines of Once than what this delivered. It wasn't the initial reactions that had me concerned as if to the film were any good, but having not seen Carney's first feature I was more weary of whether or not the film would be significant or not. It seems Ruffalo along with Keener have a misplaced trust in the idea of indie films. Both actors have starred in countless small projects that I seem to not take notice of until they are available at Redbox or on the shelves of one of the few remaining rental stores. It isn't that these easily forgotten films are necessarily bad, but they are indeed forgettable in the scheme of maybe never getting the right kind of recognition. “Begin Again” walked this thin line for some time, but if nothing else had enough star power to push it over into being given a fair shot at prominence and for me, I was pleasantly surprised by what I found to be a substantial piece of engaging and meaningful cinema dealing in simple human nature through song. Likely, most critics who disliked this film will say the previous sentence is what they found in “Once” and wanted more of from Carney, but that he instead goes the opposite route of his characters and is even hypocritical in selling out to a certain extent as this is a more mainstream flick that plays with conventions, just like the musicians Knightley's Gretta despises. The only thing I can think of in response to this is that while the film may look and sometimes even feel like a typical romantic comedy that is likely due only to Carney gaining his footing with an actual production crew and collaborating with a team (he shot “Once” in 17 days with two digital cameras and rented a crane). I say this because the spirit of the film never conveys that of a typical romantic comedy despite the wonderful chemistry between Knightley and Ruffalo. In fact, “Begin Again”, while it may have an exuberant color palette and the liveliness of New York City to play with, comes away as a very personal, intimate portrait that I imagine is in line with the unavoidable comparison.
We meet Gretta as she sits forlorn on the side of a hole in the wall bar and performance venue in NYC watching her friend Steve (Corden) play a gig. Against her will, Steve pulls Gretta onto the stage coaxing her into playing one of her songs. As this small moment in time occurs we are, through the magic of non-linear storytelling, shown how Dan (Ruffalo) comes to be in the same bar and experiences Gretta's song to which he has a reaction that will change the trajectory of both their lives. The back-story goes that Gretta came to the city with long-time boyfriend Dave (Adam Levine) who were not only college sweethearts, but songwriting partners as well. When Dave secured a deal with a major label she went along with him in hopes of continued collaboration as well as a likely future together. As the story goes though the lifestyle and privileges of the rich and famous are too much for Dave to overcome and soon their relationship is done. Dan, on the other hand is a disgraced record label executive who started his own label with partner Saul (Mos Def) and has long since become a vague shadow of the man and producer he once was. Dan lives in a crap apartment, sleeping on nothing but a mattress and drinking his days away. He's lost the meaning in his day to day and has a broken home life that includes his ex-wife Miriam (Keener) and teenage daughter Violet (Hailee Steinfeld) who the movie positions as a developing person he hardly knows and doesn't bother to get to know outside the required times he picks her up from school once a month. When Dan hears the raw talent coming from Gretta that night in the East Village though things begin to turn around for each of them in ways they didn't expect because they weren't necessarily interested in changing or going the ways this opportunity presents them with. The plot description can even can sound hokey in many aspects, I realize, but it is the performances both of the actors and musicians here that elevate “Begin Again” to a level of something that is not only entertaining, but a kind of experience that places us in the middle of an unforgettable summer in New York City set to an eclectic and catchy soundtrack.
I compliment the performances so heavily because they are what stand-out about the proceedings. No, there isn't anything particularly exceptional about the level of filmmaking here, but there is endless creativity. The scene in which Dan hears the possibilities of Gretta's song becomes completely memorable due to the measures taken to help send the point home. There is the concept of an outside album that is the centerpiece for the film in which Dan and Gretta travel all over the city recording different songs in different locations that is a good enough idea on its own; the opportunity to see the songs develop and the process of this project take place feels like a peak behind the curtain or a wonderful documentary that is accentuated by the personal stories and investments of our lead characters. Ruffalo, as always, is a joy to watch on screen and though he may pick up one too many projects to where his presence doesn't feel as "special" or particularly "prestigious" he has such a wide appeal and grounded nature about him that it is impossible not to become wrapped up in his plight and his glances that say more than his dialogue ever could. I've never really been a fan of Knightley, but she certainly seems to be picking up the pace with her appearance in Jack Ryan earlier this year and the upcoming Laggies that looks similar in tone and ambition to this film. As Gretta, she plays the hipster, honest singer/songwriter well and wears her emotions on her sleeve, but in the form of slow, folksy songs. She has no interest in becoming famous, she doesn't need the fame but moreover the ability to write songs and make a living off it, but she can't help but to become involved in the vision of Dan and even further to the point that she gives him a mindset to appreciate the perspective of his life and the understanding he's wasted enough time wallowing. These developments are accomplished not through plot functions or storytelling tools, but instead through the naturalistic performances that Knightley and Ruffalo deliver as well as some strong supporting work from Steinfeld and Corden. Through all of this we are reminded that the music is what keeps our souls together and the essence of that art is truly magic and Carney just wants to draw us in to where the magic really happens.