Begin Again – John Carney with more lost indie music souls. (Film Review)
It’s an exciting experience when a film that looks predictable, that you expect to follow a certain set of rules, suddenly breaks out of its own self-imposed jail with a surprise that warms the heart so well, the rest of the film is made good. I am talking about one particular scene in Begin Again, near the front of the film, but also about an editing style that allows for the full impact of the scene, that then affects the rest of the film so strongly, everything is tinted with filmic gold because of it. Begin Again opens with James Corden as Steve, inviting his love-lorn friend Gretta (Keira Knightly) onto the stage of a small indie folk bar to sing one of her ditties to a well-meaning but ‘scene it all before’ crowd (see what I did there?) whose enthusiasm for the philosophy of the venue far outweighs the performer and performance. Gretta reluctantly agrees, gets up on stage and sings her rather pleasant little song. By the end of it, all of the crowd have turned politely away to their conversation and their drinks except for one Dan (Mark Ruffalo) who stands entranced in the middle of the room, the biggest smile on his face you’ve ever seen in your life. Flash back to the start of the day, and without any spoilers, we find that Dan has actually had a terrible day and is accidentally in that bar that night in order to continue drinking himself into oblivion, when he hears a singer, whose singularity comes not from the performance itself, but from its ability to become something special when the right extra is added. In other words, we see what (one supposes) the talent scout sees when he finds an act who doesn’t appear to stand out from their surrounds, but with precisely the right surrounding work, has what it takes to become something special. It’s a brilliant scene, no spoilers being revealed, and it both saves and sets up the rest of the film with the shadow of greatness it casts over he two main leads, as well as its ability to justify the ‘background’ story of the lead characters, that for the most part is the most boring aspect of the film.
I can’t remember when I’ve seen a movie where one scene is so immaculately wrought, that it not only gives the rest of the film an accidental meaning, but is obviously essential to the film makers as well, so it is set up as the pivotal moment. Begin Again ends up being a statement about the key moment that changes everything, that event we either pay meaning to, or don’t in our lives. There probably isn’t a better vehicle for this idea than ‘the song’ because more than any other art form, ‘the song’ can come to mean something powerful in our lives, that has the ability to transport us back to its moment like a time anchor, miraculously changing our feelings and converting them to the moment ‘the song’ became imbued with the meaning we suppose it has. I asked Lawrence English in an interview recently, why we are so keen to colonize music, and he immediately refuted the idea, claiming we can never colonize music, but rather it calls to something already in us. Perhaps that is what ‘the song’ represents, a moment that the sound will always tie us to, something we pretend we own, but that really owns us. Begin Again is the every flowing circular notion of this phenomena, that states with the start of each new track, each new event, we start over, becoming something else through our choices about how we respond.
The primary criticism of Begin Again is that it is almost identical to John Carney’s other music film, Once, and that is, not only a better film, but one that explores many of the ideas put out there by Begin Again. If Begin Again is a more inferior version of virtually the same story (indie music maker in the big city making good and maybe or maybe not falling in love with each other) it is a broader vehicle with a lot more steam in that Keira Knightly is one of the biggest female names in film and Mark Ruffalo (who is as reliably fantastic as always – wow what a crush I have on Mark Ruffalo) is one of the second biggest names you can have in film, and therefore it is a pattern John Carney can write and direct his way through well, bringing his ideas to a larger screen audience. Having said that, the editing sytlings of Begin Again give it fresh meaning and the scene that I have carried on about, sets it apart with its own freshness. A tragic difference between Begin Again and Once is the New Radicals songwriting team of Gregg Alexander and Danielle Brisebois just aren’t in the same form here as Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová were for Once, who penned the famous ‘Falling Slowly’ that went on to win the 2007 Academy Award for best original song. The big stars and the small music gives Begin Again a decidedly polished feel against he indie aesthetic of Once and its true greatness, but for some reason that doesn’t detract from the deep pleasures available in Begin Again, mostly due to the one scene and the ability of Carney to solicit great performances from an entire cast comprised of deep and complex characters. The only let down in this department is Maroon 5 lead vocalist Adam Levine who is so dull and wooden that he almost becomes a problem for an otherwise fantastic little piece of heart-warm. But it isn’t spoiled by any of this, and in the end Begin Again is a lovely experience, and a very thoughtful homage to the importance of that song that means everything to you that you can never really work out why.