John Carney's Begin Again (2014) is an indie version of a musical romantic drama. In truth, I didn't know I had an itch for such a thing until that itch was scratched. Musicals are always hit or miss with me, particularly contemporary musicals, so when one of them hits the spot, I'm always delighted and a bit surprised. In this case, I'm especially taken in because I had no faith in Kiera Knightley as a singer, never having heard that she can sing. She acquits herself well. If the story seems a little over-familiar, well, that's fine. It's the execution that counts.
Begin Again follows two characters who are on a collision course. One is Dan, whose life is falling apart after a split with his wife. His record label is floundering as it tries to find the next big thing; he's growing apart from his daughter, whose mode of dress alarms him; he's drinking way too much. On one drunken sojourn through the city, he wanders into an intimate music club where he hears singer/songwriter Gretta, who, like him, is coming out of a bad break-up. Her ex is on the rise as a rock star, and has found another muse in a publicist with his record label. Gretta, in part responsible for his success, is utterly devastated, and she's angry to be dragged on stage with the wound still raw and bleeding. Dan hears something in her music, though. He wants to produce her. She's not particularly interested, but Dan wheedles her into it. His partner at his label isn't much interested, either, so Dan decides to fund the record himself and record it all around New York, with the city acting as a kind of ambient noise, occasionally providing them with bits of serendipity. The process also brings Dan closer to his daughter, who plays guitar. Dan and Gretta seem like a match and their relationship teeters on the edge of romance, but in the end, Dan goes back to his family, and Gretta? She doesn't get back together with her ex, choosing instead to go her own way.
It hides it well, but this is a film built around set-pieces. In this regard, Begin Again is a traditional musical. The nature of the set-pieces, though, that's a different matter. There are no real song and dance numbers, as such, but there are a few scenes that play like music videos. Others, the ones detailing the act of creation, are more cinematically inventive. This starts early as the film doubles back onto the scene from its prologue that introduces Gretta, this time as seen by Dan. Dan imagines the arrangement he would use to record the spare, folkie song she sings, with invisible musicians picking up their instruments to play with her. The most striking of these scenes finds Gretta composing a song on the spot to say "fuck off" to her ex on the eve of his big award. By this point, he's turned into a gigantic douchebag. This scene is direct and undecorated and beautifully acted by Kiera Knightley. For sheer fun, the scene where Dan and Gretta share playlists and a set of headphones is ebullient. Even the conventional set-pieces are entertaining, though. This movie has good songs, which goes a long way toward making for a good musical. The way this hides its set-pieces is to frame them as diegetic performances. This isn't a film where people spontaneously break into song, even though, actually, they do. It's just framed in a way that is natural to "real life," whatever the hell that may be.
The stars make this all work, Mark Ruffalo, in particular. His character is an amalgam of character types he's played before in films like You Can Count On Me and The Kids Are All Right, but where those characters have been unsympathetic, this film adds a dose of charm. Ruffalo is good at charm, even when he's a scruffy drunk at the outset of this film. There's a backbone of artistic integrity to his character that makes his irresponsibility easier to take, a characteristic communicated with admirable economy in one of his first scenes, in which he's sampling demo discs in his car. That this scene is funny sets the stage for the way Dan charms Gretta over the course of the film. Knightley's Gretta, for her part, is not Trilby to Dan's Svengali. She gives as good as she gets. She's smart and savvy about the music business and will have no part of its bullshit. She had that from her previous relationship and it disgusts her. When she hears what the industry has done to the songs she and John created prior to their break-up, she's appalled. When John tries to get back into her good graces, she insists he go back to basics. But even that's not enough to get her back. His inconstancy and lack of a backbone puts her forever beyond him.
I wish Dan's story were less hackneyed. The estranged dad getting back in touch with his family is such a cliche at this point. Worse, it completely wastes Catherine Keener as yet another faithless ex-wife. In his particulars, Dan is a less self-hating version of Philip Seymour Hoffman's estranged husband in Synedoche, New York (who was also jilted by Keener). I'm a bit troubled by the way this film communicates that Dan's daughter is "troubled" by dressing her in sexually provocative clothing, which goes to the heart of the patriarchal offensiveness of this narrative. For her part, Hailee Steinfeld does a creditable job of making her character something more than a stereotyped motivating prop for Dan's mid-life crisis.
This would all bother me more if it wasn't balanced by Gretta's story, which has a steel core of feminist resolve. She doesn't need a man, even if she wants one. She doesn't need Dan to self-actualize through her music, even though she eventually agrees to use him to develop her work. She doesn't need the music industry, and eventually ends up subverting everything it wants to do to her. And at the end of the film, when she walks away from boyfriends and record execs alike, she does it on her terms alone.
Director John Carney films all of this with a playful disregard for linearity. This skips around in time a bit, and crosscuts between its stories with aplomb. There's an awareness of the film as a movie in some of its soundtrack cues, too, which include significant nods to Sinatra and Dooley Wilson. Hell, the ghosts of Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland hover over this film's "let's put on a show" plot. Still, Carney's eye has a withering disregard for the record industry, which he films in sterile, post-modern spaces where music is only an afterthought. The record industry couldn't care less for music, so long as they have product they perceive as commercial. Carney is more in love with New York, though, which is a fantasy land against which he sets his stories. I suppose he can be forgiven for this. A lot of filmmakers fall in love with New York, and why not? It can play a theme park or a wasteland with equal authenticity. This film lands somewhere closer to the theme park end of the spectrum, but not so far that it looks like a Nora Ephron or Woody Allen movie. The conceit of recording Gretta's album out in public gives the filmmakers license to travel around to photogenic locations. For all that, this is a film that understands the power of faces, and when he needs to, Carney lets his camera linger on them.
So, a good movie, and one that made me happy while I watched it. Happiness was an unlooked-for surprise. I can use a little "happy" these days. More than that, I tend to respond to films in which the process of art--and that's at the center of this movie--is ultimately redemptive. Given that I've thrown my lot in with art rather than religion, it could hardly be otherwise. For all its musical ebullience and ideas about transcendence and self-actualization, this is very much a movie in which the nuts and bolts of creation and collaboration are on display (no matter how abstracted they may be for an audience of laymen), and this sort of thing almost always works for me. Your mileage, of course, may vary.
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