You can slot me into the category of movie goers that firmly believes that music can make or break a film. And I don’t mean the songs in a Twilight film (though some of them were decent), I mean the score of a film. Without you even realizing it, as Mark Ruffalo’s character says in one scene, music can take mundane everyday happenings and infuse them with emotion. Irish born writer-director John Carney (Once) obviously is in that club with me. Both his major(ish) full-length features have had music as the centrepiece to them. In both Begin Again and Oscar Award-winning Once two very different people meet and music brings them together in a way not thought possible. Whereas Once was more of a romantic story this one is about meeting the right person at the right time in your life and being brought together or driven apart by music.
Told in a kind of jumbly, not always in sequence kind of way this film will burrow itself deep into your heart and mind to take up residence with all the other things that have made you think and feel in your life. You’ll carry it with you like the melody of a good song.
Story goes – Greta (Keira Knightley – Atonement, Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit) is an English girl who has moved to New York with her boyfriend of five years, Dave (Adam Levine – from the group Maroon 5 and television’s American Horror Story). Not only are they lovers but they are also songwriting writing partners. They have come to New York because Dave has signed with a major label due to music he wrote for a film. New found fame drives a wedge between them as Dave is really chasing after commercial success whereas Greta is of the attitude where she just occasionally writes songs – a purist, in other words. One thing leads to another, Dave goes to Los Angeles to meet with label people there and ends up falling for Mim (Jennifer Li).
Grabbing her bicycle, suitcase and her acoustic guitar Greta ends up at her friend from home, Steve’s (James Corden – The History Boys, Gulliver’s Travels) tiny apartment. One night, the night she has decided to leave New York to return to London, while being forced up on stage to sing one of her songs at a small bar filled with people who couldn’t be less interested in her music, Greta makes a connection. The song she sings really resonates with Dan (Mark Ruffalo – The Avengers, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind), who is a man hearing the right song at the right time in his life.
Dan is also going through his own tough time. He and his wife of eighteen years, Miriam (Catherine Keener – Captain Phillips, Being John Malkovich), are separated, he rarely sees his teenage daughter Violet (Hailee Steinfeld – True Grit – 2010, 3 Days to Kill) and he has been recently asked to leave the record label he helped found with his partner Saul (Mos Def – The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, The Italian Job – 2003). He drinks too much, lives in a crappy apartment and has not signed a successful act in seven years. To say that he and Greta are at a crossroad in their lives is an understatement.
His drunken and somewhat empty offer to sign her leads to them recording an album on a shoestring budget in different locations outdoors in New York. While doing this album together they both begin to transform in ways neither could have predicted.
Movies have always offered filmmakers the way to visually connect with human beings in a similar way in which music can through sound. Each art form has the power to change things in their purest of essences. Though rarely is that something filmmakers or songwriters strive for. We have become a society that is looking for immediate gratification. Films like these huge tent pole action adventure ones that are made to affect you sonically and visually for the two hours you are in the theatre, but don’t strive for a lasting effect. Same with music made by the likes of One Direction, Jennifer Lopez and Justin Bieber. They just want to have the song of the moment rather than make timeless classics. It is all driven by the quest for the almighty dollar rather than making something good that people can connect to and carry with them as they travel through life.
Now, in saying all that maybe I am building up Begin Again too much as it is not The Reader or Schindler’s List in that it is not a classic. What it is though is a film that tries to reach out from the screen through the acting, story and music and grab hold of you in order to make you feel and relate it to your own life.
Dan and Greta are two struggling souls. Music brings them together and together they have an impact on each other that transforms them into different people. Better people. Or people better equipped to handle their lives. Both are on the precipice of giving up the life they were meant for and together they show each other who and what they truly want. Music helps them make that connection.
Usually I am not the biggest Keira Knightley fan. I’ve always found her acting to be rather affected and unnatural. However, in this she seems comfortable in her own skin and really gives life to the central character. Everyone else in the film operates around her and her strong performance gives the film a grounded centrepiece to operate from. Plus she has a surprisingly decent voice, so phew there! Because he doesn’t have your typical movie star looks or doesn’t tend to work in huge films I have always felt that Mark Ruffalo was a rather underappreciated actor. This film is not going to change that view of him for most, but for his fans (and we are out there) it will really cement the fact that the guy has mad skills. He does not go overboard on the sad sack aspect of his character just instills a believable depth to him that anyone going through a time in their life where they don’t feel like they are in control will be able to relate to.
Not your typical romantic comedy. It is both romantic and comedic, which doesn’t happen too often nowadays. Also it doesn’t go for easy, rather it tries to stay grounded in realism as much as possible. Carney wisely keeps us guessing where this is all leading to and I am really happy to say that his ending was note perfect – pun intended. See this with the pure belief that music does have the power to transform and your heart on your sleeve and you will be aptly rewarded.