My entire life, I have felt a draw to music and its ability to connect with you in a mere three minutes and 30 seconds. I took lessons in piano and guitar growing up, but none of the notes ever stuck to my fingertips. So I tried to write lyrics, but without the instrumentation, they never seemed to make sense. It was one of those examples of passion without talent. Unluckily for me, my brother can pick up any instrument and learn it within the hour. This only fueled our tense brother-sister relationship growing up. (He says he was always jealous of my “artistic” talent, which fueled his side of the feud. As with music, my artistic talent is questionable). We eventually grew up and this strain faded into an admiration for him and his craft.
I believe this was part of why I love music in movies so much. Not just musicals, either (which I do also adore). I love movies based around musicians exploring their craft. How does a musician create a song? They are able to somehow, beyond my comprehension, put together the pieces of string, wood and words to create something tangible. That process is a mystery that I feel compelled to try and unravel.
Begin Again, John Carney's second foray into the life of a musician following his previous film Once. With his second film, he brings his innate musical sense from the small scale of two aspiring musicians to the world of major recording labels. This film is very true to its title. It’s about learning to begin again through the creation of music. I myself have never had the ability to regenerate through creating music, but by listening TO and wrapping my wounds in music, I have been able to create an emotional cocoon. It’s the closest I have come to the musical process and what this film heavily explores.
In Begin Again, the two main characters, Dan (Mark Ruffalo) and Gretta (Kiera Knightley), have reached absolute rock bottom. Dan was just ousted out of his position as the head of a record label due to his drinking and inability to accommodate a changing recording industry, as well as being on the outs with his wife and daughter. Gretta is freshly moved to the states with her rising rock star boyfriend, Dave (Adam Levine), has just been dumped and is alone in New York. Deciding to move back home to the UK in this heartbreak, her only compatriot, Steve (James Corden), encourages her to perform at an open mic night. By chance, Dan happens to be in attendance at the very same open mic and is immediately inspired by Greta's stripped down acoustic performance. He likes her performance so much that he wants to produce for her (even though he has no budget). Dan hears something special in Greta's raw words that he feels he can polish to create a distinct and fresh sound. The story of the movie is how they work together toward this common goal.
This film creates a world of dichotomies with both its characters and its visuals. Dan and Gretta are in the opposite ends of the creative process. Gretta says she writes songs only sometimes and for her cat; she has an uncorrupted talent that she hides away due to a spotlight on her ex-boyfriend and a lack of confidence. Dan has been beaten down by the industry and is hollow from his creative exhaustion. Their counterpoints create a funnel for their musical passion to be excised. This is shown through the split narrative intro and naturally created where the screen is split by objects in the line of sight. The split narrative of each of their backgrounds is necessary for us to understand how and why meeting at that open mic was life changing for them both.
This film expresses the tiers of the music world in the most down to earth fashion through its character web. At the beginning of the film, Mos Def is excellent at creating a business partner who has been giving Dan chance after chance. He is not firing Dan in a vindictive or cruel way; it’s because he loves the company and Dan, but has exhausted all his support and can’t see their label suffer because of it. James Corden is truly hilarious as Steve, Gretta’s best friend, a musician who is forced to busk because he has not made it in the industry yet. He has never been one of my favorite comedians, but his innate warmth and good nature had me laughing the entire time. The most surprising performance is Maroon 5’s Adam Levine as Gretta’s rock star boyfriend, Dave. It is one of those performances where you are not sure whether he is just being himself or actually acting. He is not an out and out asshole, but he is definitely not a great guy. Levine is very good at being the charming asshole musician in the scene where he attempts to get back together with Gretta by trying to use his charm and history with her. Instead, he just ends up showing his selfishness and the interaction rang very true to me, and to anyone who has ever dated a “musician.”
The original title of the film was Can a Song Change Your Life? I think the title Begin Again is simpler way of getting at this idea. Creating music helped these characters begin again through talent, heartbreak and ingenuity. The connection with other suffering artists to gain resolution of life experience is marked in the music and lyrics and shows that’s how you create a soundtrack to someone’s reality.