Review: Begin Again (2013)

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There’s a scene early on in BEGIN AGAIN where Mark Ruffalo’s ramshackle record producer Dan shows obvious physical pain at listening to the bilge that are the demo tapes he is sent as he is stuck in busy city traffic that, as well as being a pretty amusing sight, it also sets out the aims and tone of the film from the start. In short, the music industry isn’t going to get off lightly here.

Dan Mulligan (Mark Ruffalo) is going through a rough patch. His independent record label could be doing better, the acts they do manage to sign are uninspiring, and he faces a mountain of personal and professional problems that send him on a downward spiral. By chance, he comes across Gretta (Keira Knightley) who reluctantly performs at an open mic night in a backstreet bar, and Dan sees instant potential. Gretta of course has issues to face as well, mostly linked to her relationship with superstar musician Dave Kohl (Adam Levine) and just wanting to produce an album of good music might not be enough in a world where the music industry has become so shallow and materialistic.

The film feels grounded in a very real version of New York City, much like John Carney’s previous sort-of musical ONCE had its feet firmly planted in a very real Dublin. Filmed on location, it avoids the picturesque, touristy parts of NYC and sticks to the kinds of places everyday people would actually go. Sometimes when a filmmaker tries to evoke a location, it’s not exactly what you see but what you feel, the essence or spirit of a place that really sells it, and Begin Again manages that particularly well with all its back alleys, dingy bars and trips on a packed subway line. Naturalistic cinematography and performances also help to complete the package. Knightley really sounds like a Brit abroad uncertain of where her life is heading, and Ruffalo sounds like a NYC native down on his life and luck.

Though  similar in its themes and character archetypes to Once, story-wise Begin Again is a spiritual sequel, a narrative leap forward and a logical next step in the lives of characters like the Guy and the Girl in Once. From Once’s small-scale, idealistic dreams of doing what you enjoy and being able to express yourself artistically every day of your life we move to Dan and Gretta’s story which focusses on the ups and downs (mostly downs) of the music industry itself, as well as how being a part of it can affect yourself and your loved ones (Knightley’s romance with another, more successful musician and Ruffalo’s relationship with his ex-wife and daughter as played by Catherine Keener and Hailee Steinfeld).

Again, much like Once, the story offers a sweet, subtle romance rather than a big throbbing passionate melodrama. Begin Again becomes much more about the consequences of love than the perks of it, and it’s a less essential theme to the plot than, say, greed, capitalism, or even just having fun. Yes, we delve into how Gretta’s relationship with Dave influences her attitude to her life and career, but it’s sidelined pretty quickly along with Dan’s dysfunctional family dynamic (Keener in particular seems under-served) in favor of really laying into the less-than-moral workings of the music business.

Ruffalo’s Dan once had drive and ambition, a fire in his belly, but he’s been steadily ground down by the realities of his art, bu the cutthroat business he chooses to be part of, until he’s all-but lost hope for himself and respect for anything anyone does. Knightley’s Gretta begins to restore Dan’s hope, and gives him something to aim for again, just as he represents her only real chance of her talent being noticed by the world.

There are some nice character touches, and plenty of acknowledgements of how the cogs of contemporary society move – good music should be, but isn’t, more about how people sound than how they look, there are way too many polished teen stars dominating music, you really would look up a random scruffy guy claiming to be a record producer on Wikipedia.

I’ll be up-front and admit that I haven’t always been a Keira Knightley fan. A decade back when she was first coming to prominence, I really didn’t see what the big deal was. But over the last few years she’s made some really interesting choices in her roles and how she plays them, and has well-and-truly grown as an actor, to the extent that I now always find her effortlessly charming and empathetic. Ruffalo is undoubtedly one of my favourite actors working today, and no-one plays troubled, mysterious and sexy loners quite like him. It’s more apparent than ever that both leads can do comedy really well. They’re both  natural, relatable and self-deprecating in their humour, and Carney’s script is fully aware of the  clichés often found in movies like this, and he has fun mocking them: “We’re gonna need musicians, eternally miserably bored musicians”; “We’ll record outside”, “What if it starts raining?”.

The music isn’t as pure and raw as the folky brilliance of the soundtrack to Once (perhaps due to the absence of the notable talents of Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová), but it’s still pretty good for pop music. For me it just doesn’t pack the same punch on an emotional level, no matter how well Knightley is performing. I particularly found Adam Levine’s tracks grating, though this might be the point as his character is supposed to be a first-class toolbox. Keira has a nice voice, and it’s certainly not a case of “don’t give up the day job luv”, but it’s not show-offy or overly polished, either. You can completely buy her as a musician with talent, but who the music industry’s money men find it difficult to categorise, and even more difficult to market.

The film features one of the warmest, funniest montages I’ve seen in a while – Dan and Gretta sing along to their guilty pleasure playlists on their iPods in the middle of a busy street, then in a packed club, then on the subway. Consumer warning: this scene will make you want to buy a double headphone adapter!

I’m not sure if the non-chronological telling of the tale for roughly half the film really adds anything to the finished product, as there’s very little to gain at that stage from withholding information about the characters, plus it seems more like an afterthought than something that was planned from the start of scripting/

The film’s songs could be more memorable, and there are a couple on missteps along the way, but Begin Again is certainly worth a look for its easy-going energy and how succinctly it sums up what is wrong with the contemporary music business. Yes, great songs can lose something once they’re turned into “stadium pop” anthems (hint hint Maroon 5) and music bigwigs really can’t justify the amount they make off of any promising new and upcoming artists. I do kind of want to see the mooted “Paris Tapes” or “Prague Sessions” just to spend a little more time with these characters, even if their stories are tied up pretty satisfyingly here. SSP

 

About Sam Sewell-Peterson

I'm not paid to write about film - I do it because I love it. Favourites include Sam Mendes, Guillermo del Toro, Bong Joon-ho, Steven Spielberg, Danny Boyle, Edgar Wright, Taika Waititi and the Coen Brothers. All reviews and articles are original works owned by me. They represent one man's opinion, and I'm more than happy to engage in civilised debate if you disagree.
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