Sunday, July 6, 2014

Begin Again (***)

Written and Directed by John Carney


With the release of Once in 2007, Irish director John Carney showed that he has a real connection with pop music and a real talent for displaying that connection on the big screen. Most of the credit for that film went to its two stars, Glen Hansard and Maketa Irglova, who eventually both went on to win the Best Original Song Oscar for that film's beautiful headliner, "Falling Slowly". After all, it was Hansard and Irglova who actually wrote all of the songs, which were such a vital part of the film, even if it was Carney who stood solo as the credited writer and director. You can spend a long time hashing out who deserves the most praise for that collaboration, but I'd probably say that it makes sense that we haven't heard anything about Carney since that film. That is, until now, with the release of his latest film Begin Again, which continues his obsession with the healing power of music. Carney doesn't seem to think of music as solely therapeutic, the way a movie like High Fidelity or We Are The Best! seems to, he seems to actually believe that music has real healing power. At the very least, that's the magical elixir that he places at the feet of his characters, and it's this unbridled enthusiasm for these characters and their artistic ambition that helps us overcome the fact that he is basically making the same film over again with punchier plot points and a starrier cast.

It makes sense that the original working title for this film was Can a Song Change Your Life?, even though the question mark is unnecessary and we all know that Carney would respond to that question with a forever-resounding YES! But Begin Again shares the same core plot of Once: two damaged souls meet by chance and use a musical collaboration to put their lives back on track. The film swaps out the murky charm of Dublin for the manic robustness of New York City, and the two souls presented here are played by major Hollywood actors Mark Ruffalo and Keira Knightley. Ruffalo plays Dan, a chain-smoking alcoholic who sleeps on a mattress in a small East Village apartment after being kicked out of the home he once shared with his wife, Miriam (Catherine Keener), and teenaged daughter, Violet (Hailee Steinfeld). Dan is one of the founders of Distressed Records, a famed independent label known for nurturing future talent in its 90's heyday, but is now muddling along in the fight against online piracy with the rest of the music industry. Dan's personal matters and erratic behavior isn't helping matters and when he's embarrassingly late for yet another meeting with a prospective client, Dan's partner, Saul (Yasiin 'Mos Def' Bey) informs him that he will no longer be working for Distressed Records.

Things aren't exactly going smoothly for Gretta (Knightley), either, though they start on a much happier note. An English songwriter, she moves from Bristol to Manhattan with her singer/songwriter boyfriend Dave (Adam Levine), after he's offered a record deal. Dave and Gretta are songwriting partners, but Dave is the performer who enjoys the adoration of the crowds. Dave's quick-rising star begins to erode their relationship quicker than ever expected after he sleeps with a record executive's assistant on a trip to Los Angeles. Heartbroken, Gretta leaves Dave and decides to spend the night with her friend Steve (James Corden) before returning to Bristol the next morning. Steve coaxes her to join him at an open mic night where he'll be performing. Their somber night out coincides with Dan's downward spiral, as he drunkenly stumbles into the bar just as Gretta takes the stage to perform a song that is, as she says, "for anyone who's ever been alone in the city". The kinder patrons in the audience are indifferent, but most are noisy and dismissive. Only Dan is able to listen to the song and visualize the hit that it could become, and he tells her so after she finishes. Inebriated, he promises her that he can sign her to a label that he no longer works for, and sensing his bullshit, she declines.

But Dan perseveres and convinces Gretta to stay an extra day so he can introduce her and her music to Saul. Still smarting from Dan's disruptive exit and not feeling the music, Saul turns them down. That's when Dan gets the idea: recording Gretta's songs live throughout the city, unafraid of picking up ambient noise, using cheap musicians to back her up. Making real music with a true independent spirit. The idea is so charming that it convinces Gretta to stay in NYC and cut the album. Using connections, the two are able to find musicians who are able to work for free and they begin recording in several locations, including alleyways in Harlem, downtown train stations and Washington Square Park. With the help of Steve's surprisingly sophisticated and portable recording equipment, they're able to get all of the songs down without much trouble and together Dan and Gretta not only make a good piece of music, but begin putting back the pieces of their fractured lives. Violet begins to see that her father is not always a drunken, formerly successful music executive, but a truly talented judge of good performance. While Gretta begins to get over the fact that her ex-boyfriend is becoming a bigger and bigger star by the moment.

Just from watching the trailer, it's easy to get scared that Begin Again will fall into the much hackneyed movie tradition of romantically pairing the much older Ruffalo with Knightley. American films have an obsession with redeeming obnoxious, but tortured geniuses like Ruffalo's Dan and rewarding them with beautiful, but injured ingenues like Knightley's Gretta. Carney's film often flirts with the romantic tension between the two of them, but deserves credit for the mature way in which it deals with the relationship, as well as the way it depicts the nature of past, destroyed relationships. All that said, it's Knightley's Gretta that is the the much more interesting half. The 29-year-old actress is polarizing in a way that baffles me, but she has an undeniable screen presence and has always been able to use her obvious adorability to bring audiences into a performance that is so much more than that. She is at her best when she is playing against her own undeniable beauty, often against male counterparts that may seem resistant to her charms (think Pride & Prejudice and Seeking a Friend For The End of the World). Here she is at her cheeky best, playing a woman who knows she possesses the assets to play for the camera, but refuses to. Integrity and authenticity are important to Gretta, but Knightley does good to showcase that it's the appearance of these virtues that is most important.

John Carney's directorial style is so dependent on its actors that it's hard to judge. His visual identity is all handheld shots and jump cuts, which allows actors to explore their characters in a more free form manner but leaves Begin Again without a single interesting shot in the whole film. Perhaps that's the whole point. Afterall, Carney seems to be much more of a music lover than a film lover. Shots are constructed and edits are made based on the performances. I found it strange, considering the whole conceit of Dan's plan to throw caution to the wind and record songs live on location, that Carney actually used pre-recorded music for the performance scenes. I definitely understand why: I'm sure it's near-impossible for a low-budget film to record live music around the famously-noisy Manhattan borough without needing twenty takes and really disturbing the peace. But it throws a real monkey wrench into the nobility of Gretta's pure recordings when it becomes increasingly obvious that Knightley is actually lip-synching everything. It helps that the songs themselves (written by a crew of songwriters, led by New Radicals frontman Gregg Alexander) are wonderfully catchy, harmony-filled pop songs that are nearly impossible to dislike.

Begin Again is essentially a feel-good picture that doesn't have much interest in the logistics of the main points of its plots and its high reliance on coincidence. If it wanted to really capture New York City life, than we would have had a lot more scenes of Dan having trouble finding parking for his Jaguar. This film is sweet and depicts somewhat of a musician's fantasy, but it does it sincerely. It has an earnest love for its characters, which shows itself unabashedly. The performances from Ruffalo and especially Knightley brighten the film's archetypal scenes and help the film feel more organic than most romantic comedies. The film's highlight, though, is it's songs which find a way to use Knightley's light voice and really make it flavorful - it's easy to believe Dan's reputation as a music magician when you hear how he translates her songs. I'm not sure this film will become the musical phenomenon that Once became - part of the fun with that film was discovering the formerly unknown musical talents of Hansard and Irglova - but I think the music is probably just as good, if not as heartbreaking. Carney sees music as a magic potion to cure all of life's ills, and that's probably a bit of a fairy tale line of thinking. But it's nice to live in his fairy tale if only for a short while.

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