Begin Again (John Carney, 2013)
Director John Carney has referred to Begin Again as “a musical for people who don’t like musicals” which annoyed me a bit when I first read that because THOSE PEOPLE AREN’T IMPORTANT. I was probably also a bit surprised because it didn’t even really occur to me that this was a musical, although it depends on your definition. For me, a musical is when the characters break out into song outside of a performance within the narrative. This doesn’t occur in Begin Again. The characters don’t converse through song – they stage performances, sing each other their latest written pieces, or record songs for their albums. I think this is why the people who “don’t like musicals” will be able to enjoy this film – because it isn’t one. But it doesn’t really matter because I still loved it.
In Begin Again, a down-on-his-luck, divorced, alcoholic record producer Dan (Mark Ruffalo) is inspired after seeing singer-songwriter Gretta (Keira Knightley) dragged up on stage to sing at a Manhattan bar. She has recently split from her boyfriend and emerging rock star Dave (Adam Levine) and usually shies away from the spotlight. Dan and Gretta meet and so begins a unique collaboration which sees them record an album in various locations around the city.
Gregg Alexander of the New Radicals has penned some terrific music for this film. I suppose we’re meant to view Gretta’s songs as the standouts, and some of these were great, but I preferred (and LOVED) Dave’s. I was already a moderate fan of Adam Levine and Maroon 5, but I connected even more when it was Levine’s voice paired with Alexander’s songs – there’s a special kind of song for me that just makes me feel HAPPY and I’m yet to be able to describe exactly what that is, but it’s here and showcased by Levine’s awesome voice. To someone who isn’t particularly knowledgeable about the music-making process, I also found this film enlightening in regards to just how much some good orchestrations can contribute to a basic song. One scene in particular is eye-opening in this respect. It’s possible that those with far more knowledge than I would look down their noses at how this is portrayed, but I was impressed.
There have been obvious comparisons with John Carney’s 2006 hit Once, which is also about a collaboration between a guy and a girl, but altogether quite different. I personally preferred Begin Again – possibly partly because it was set in sunny New York and the locations were just stunning (Ireland ain’t got nothing on that shit) but also because I enjoyed the music infinitely more. I still don’t quite get the buzz with Once, but I’m hoping I’ll appreciate the upcoming stage musical more than the film. While some might call Begin Again a more mainstream film, it was refreshingly unconventional in its approach to romance and relationships. It wasn’t afraid to take risks and this elevated it above the usual fare.
The performances by Keira Knightley and Adam Levine have been criticised by some, which I find to be unjustified. Keira Knightley is a breath of fresh air here and works way better than Scarlett Johansson (who was originally cast in the role) would have. No, she doesn’t have a crazily impressive singing voice, but Gretta’s style of singing hardly even calls for one. Some were also unimpressed with Adam Levine’s acting attempts, but his natural performance instincts shone in his musical scenes – the emotion on his face in his last song was perfect. It’s also worth mentioning another brilliant scene that takes place in Dave and Gretta’s loft apartment when he plays her his latest song on his phone. The positive vibe of the song contrasts with the dynamic between the two, and as a result works brilliantly. Keira’s reaction to the song was perfect.
Mark Ruffalo is generally pretty awesome and he doesn’t disappoint here as the dishevelled, but still pretty appealing, Dan. Don’t expect any singing from him though. It was refreshing to see Hailee Steinfeld talk like a normal teenager in her role as Dan’s daughter Violet after seeing her in the cringeworthy Romeo and Juliet earlier this year. She impressed here with her guitar skills which she reportedly learnt for the film (along with Knightley). Catherine Keener is good as Dan’s ex-wife, Miriam but she always seems to play the same characters these days so she loses my interest. Further performances from James Corden as Gretta’s friend Steve and Cee Lo Green as himself Troublegum are good fun.
Begin Again is sweet, touching, accessible, but unafraid to mix things up a little. The Manhattan settings make me crave a trip to the city of all cities, and the performances, to my mind, are just right. Whether or not you like musicals shouldn’t affect your ability to enjoy this, but your taste in music might. This is no rock ‘n’ roller, but it does showcase the power of music – and that is something I think we can all agree on.