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Begin Again

Once is one of those films that’s been a mainstay on my to-watch list for years. The DVD is in my house, the soundtrack is amazing, it got nominated for a few Oscars, the Broadway adaptation won a boatload of Tony Awards… I have no idea why it kept getting pushed further and further down the line. I have no excuse.

And now that I’ve seen Begin Again, the latest film from writer/director John Carney, I’m kicking myself even harder. If his previous musical romantic comedy was even close to this level of quality, then Carney needs way more work than he’s getting.

Let’s begin the story with Dan, played by Mark Ruffalo. He’s such a chronic drunkard and a notorious fuckup that he’s got an estranged wife (Miriam, played by Catherine Keener), a daughter he barely knows (Violet, played by Hailee Steinfeld), and he’s just been kicked out of a record label that he co-founded. It seems that after Dan championed several innovative new acts that didn’t pan out, his partner (Saul, played by freaking Mos Def) wants to go with the more safe and familiar route. Yes, this movie puts a lot of time and effort into scorching the music industry, and I for one am entirely in favor of that.

While all of that is going on, Greta (Keira Knightley) has just landed in New York City with her boyfriend (Dave, played by Adam Levine. Yes, from Maroon 5.). The two of them are singer-songwriters with the good fortune to have one of their songs included on a recent movie soundtrack. It’s made clear that Dave and Greta are a loving couple who work wonders together, though Dave is definitely the more public of the two. Greta is more content to be a supporting player, without the confidence or the ambition to take the limelight.

So Dave goes on a studio tour in L.A. without Greta, and comes back to confess that he slept with someone else during the trip. Cue Greta packing her things and moving in with an old friend (Steve, played by James Corden) who just happens to be living in the area.

Then comes an open mic night at some dive bar, when Greta is coaxed to take the stage and Dan hears one of her songs. This is actually a remarkable sequence, because we get to see it twice: Once through Greta’s mind, when we hear the rough and unpolished song that it presently is; and once through Dan’s mind, with all the production and instrumentation to hear the song that it could potentially be. No joke, Dan actually sees the instruments onstage playing themselves and it’s a very well done sequence.

Greta reluctantly agrees to let Dan help her produce an album. Unfortunately, Dan’s old company won’t even talk to them without a demo, and there isn’t any equipment to record on site. So Dan comes up with the idea of producing a full album in the open air, with each track recorded at a different location in New York City. The gimmick makes the project quick and cheap to make, and turns the album into a kind of love letter to the city.

Given the nature of the story and John Carney’s background, it should go without saying that music plays a huge part of the movie. And the soundtrack is phenomenal. “A Step You Can’t Take Back” is probably the most prominent song of the film, but “Lost Stars” and “Like A Fool” are both powerful numbers that play crucial roles in the plot. “Coming Up Roses” is another great number, and “Tell Me If You Wanna Go Home” is a showstopper.

And yes, that was Keira Knightley singing lead on all of those songs. I’m not generally surprised when Hollywood actors show singing talent — I’ve met a lot of stage actors in my time and every one of them could sing — but Knightley has a nice breathy kind of voice that suits the film very well. Of course, it helps that the songs are all loaded with energy and brimming with creativity.

The cast also features some bona fide professional musicians, but they don’t generally do much. Mos Def — here credited as Yasiin Bey — is mostly on hand to give Saul some measure of charisma and good humor, lest he appear too much like some officious corporate prick. Cee Lo Green appears for what’s basically an extended cameo, but at least he gets in fifteen seconds of ad lib rapping. Plus, the character of Troublegum only has about five minutes of screentime to sell himself as a worldwide rap superstar, and Green is more than equal to that task.

Then we have Adam Levine. This seemed to me like an odd choice, given his complete lack of acting experience and his distinctive falsetto voice. But then I remember that he’s playing someone who completely sold out his artistic integrity, whose good looks and charm are a superficial facade over a hollow shell, and the casting suddenly seemed very appropriate.

Moving on to the more talented actors, I’m afraid that Catherine Keener and Hailee Steinfeld didn’t really have to do much except show up. That’s not to say they do poorly, it’s just that these actresses are playing roles they could knock out of the park in their sleep. Sure, Steinfeld’s character gets a neat guitar solo somewhere in the third act, but the songs were so obviously pre-recorded that I’d be amazed if it was really her on the track. If nothing else, I know for a fact that the drummer onscreen was a fake. Guy looked like he was barely even hitting the hi-hat. But I digress.

Though the supporting cast is admittedly lukewarm, Ruffalo and Knightley do a fantastic job of carrying the film. Ruffalo plays Dan as a rogue with a silver tongue and more energy than brains, and it’s amazing to watch. As for Knightley, I didn’t think she could still play the up-and-coming artist with no desire for stardom at this stage in her career, but she makes it work. I think it helps that Knightley plays her character as a Brit, neither pretending that she’s American nor going into British stereotypes. It lends her character an air of authenticity, and that’s really what it comes down to.

The movie’s greatest strength is that its two lead characters feel authentic. That’s a huge part of what makes their music so effective, and it gives the film’s drama so much power. The characters’ development arcs and their will-they/won’t-they romance are made very compelling because they’re written and acted in a way that feels honest. More than that, it’s open — the characters’ emotions are right there on the screen at all times. Their hearts are laid open for us to see, and the characters are so sympathetic that it’s hard not to join in their sadness and joy.

Speaking of the film’s romance aspect, a vital recurring theme is partnership. Both of our main characters were in at least one partnership (professional, romantic, or both) that went sour. The two eventually start to collaborate on this project, but there’s always the question of how much Dan and Greta should trust each other, and how close they can get to each other before it becomes a bad idea. Then again, Dan and Greta both grow stronger as individuals because of the work they do together. It’s delightful to see how Greta brings Dan closer to his family, and Dan brings Greta enough confidence to deal with her ex-boyfriend as well.

Then we have the film’s statements about the music industry. The filmmakers show a very open disdain for the overpolished music commonly heard on the radio today, and the mainstream’s practice of putting theatrics before art. The logic given is that the singles need to get asses in the seats for concerts, like producing good works of music wasn’t a good enough end in itself. There’s also a funny little moment when Greta asks point-blank why she’s only entitled to ten percent of her album sales — especially for an album that cost virtually nothing to produce — and given a non-answer in response. The music industry is drastically changing in this internet age, such that while it may be more difficult to make money, it’s never been easier to get the songs out there. That’s a pretty good arrangement for someone with the drive and ability to make good art.

Finally, a note on the technical presentation. I’ve already talked about the sound design and how it’s made abundantly clear that the performers onscreen are just lip syncing to pre-recorded tracks. The visuals, however, fare much better. This film was shot with the good kind of hand-held method, in which the camera is just unsteady enough to provide a sense of cinema verite, but not enough to become annoying or nauseating.

It goes back to that sincere feel which makes Begin Again such a strong film. The movie works superbly as a romantic dramedy precisely because Mark Ruffalo and Keira Knightley play superbly written parts with such vulnerability (though I suspect that there was a fair bit of improv involved). Of course, it helps that so much of the plot revolves around a soundtrack comprised of outstanding music. Also, it helps that the New York City scenery is so beautifully utilized.

In summary, this is an adorable movie that’s well worth your time and money to track down.

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