Friday, July 18, 2014

Begin Again

BEGIN AGAIN (John Carney, 2013)

When BEGIN AGAIN premiered at the 2013 Toronto International Film Festival, it was called CAN A SONG SAVE YOUR LIFE? The melodramatic title has been changed to something more ordinary, yet writer-director John Carney still presses viewers to consider the question even if it is no longer the film’s name. The implied answer to the film’s previous title is yes, absolutely yes. While BEGIN AGAIN may come off as naïve and Pollyana-ish regarding the realities of the business side of music, its enthusiasm for the power of a song is hard to deny.

As in Carney’s film ONCE, the two main characters are brought together through music. Gretta (Keira Knightley) and Dan (Mark Ruffalo) are at low points in their lives when their paths cross. She’s fresh off leaving her longtime boyfriend and songwriting partner Dave (Adam Levine), whose first taste of success leads him to cheat on her. Dan is not coping well with the year-long separation from Miriam (Catherine Keener), his wife of eighteen years, and their teenage daughter Violet (Hailee Steinfeld). Adding to his troubles, he gets fired from the independent record label he co-founded. Both are at a New York City club’s open mic night when Gretta’s friend Steve (James Corden) pesters her into taking the stage to play one of her songs. While the crowd doesn’t seem especially won over, Dan believes that he hears something special.

Thinking she may be his ticket to getting his job back, Dan approaches Gretta expecting to impress her with his position in the industry. At first she rejects his offer to mold her into another artist in the hit-making machine, but after a night of reflection Gretta decides that she has nothing to lose by auditioning for Dan’s former partner Saul (Mos Def). Although Saul declines to sign her, Dan is undeterred and proposes using a laptop to self-record an album with Gretta performing outside at locations around the city. Gretta values authenticity in music, so the idea of working on a passion project in this manner is irresistible.

BEGIN AGAIN understands the role music can play in daily life. It expresses one’s aggravations and happiness and can be a refuge from a bad day or the mundanity of driving a car for hours. Dan talks about how banal moments become pregnant with meaning when music scores them. The film backs him up when Dan and Gretta stroll through Times Square listening to Frank Sinatra singing “Luck Be a Lady” through a splitter connected to a phone. This ordinary walk through the big city looks and sounds like the most magical thing to do ever. BEGIN AGAIN is foremost about the joy of music, but it makes for a beautiful love letter to New York too. With all apologies to THEY CAME TOGETHER, the city is a character and a charming one at that for Knightley in her simple but cute wardrobe and a fashionably scruffy Ruffalo to explore.

The tuneful songs by Gregg Alexander stick in the ear without seeming so accomplished as to exceed the capability of an undiscovered talent. BEGIN AGAIN’s perception of the industry, even in its weakened state, is less credible. Sure, it’s amusing to note how smarmy label executives can be and how misguided their ideas are for retaining paying customers. Levine makes for a funny sellout whose waywardness can be measured by the amount of facial hair he grows. Maybe Dan’s dismissal of the demos, which more or less sound like today’s pop hits, is meant to show he’s out of touch, although it seems like rockist cheap shots at highly engineered and fussed over songs. Even with Gretta’s standard singer-songwriter fare being jazzed up through its means of production, her music hardly seems like the kind of thing to send shockwaves through the charts or the business. Her assertion that people want authenticity sounds misguided, especially when examining the current bestsellers, and her resistance to a contract and publicity, as if she’s Jandek, defines protesting too much for someone working in the system. BEGIN AGAIN has insiders believing they are outsiders, so it’s better served by celebrating music than critiquing the industry.

Knightley and Ruffalo have a nice, relaxed chemistry suggestive of romantic undercurrents, although Carney doesn’t push the matter too intensely. Their attraction is based more in sharing an emotionally vulnerable time in their lives than physical magnetism. Their potential salvations are meant to come through the songs, not each other, and BEGIN AGAIN hums with the excitement of creative collaboration and the exuberant mystery born out of music and lyrics.

Grade: B

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