Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Begin Again is another great John Carney movie about music as a connecting force

Back in 2007, Once seemed to come out of nowhere.  It was the debut film from director John Carney, it had small ambitions, and an even tinier budget (approximately $160,000).  Its story was simple too -- a tale of two people (relative unknowns to the acting world, Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova) meeting, bonding, and recording music over a brief period of time.  But what captured audiences was the big, beating heart at its core.  Ultimately, the film was about the joy of making music and the power it has to bring disparate people together.

It seems like Carney didn't fully scratch that itch the first time, because he's back again with Begin Again, another story about people connecting through music.  This go-round, we follow Dan (Mark Ruffalo), a down and out record label executive whose best days are behind him.  Jaded from having to listen to countless generic, cookie-cutter acts, he barely gives demos more than a few seconds before tossing them aside.  A night of sulking and drinking leads him to discover Gretta (Keira Knightley), an independent singer-songwriter performing at a bar in the East Village.  So immediately enchanted by her performance, he attempts to offer her a record deal, which she declines.  See, she's got some reasons of her own to be jaded -- a bad breakup with her former writing partner (Adam Levine), who moved on to greater musical success, has caused her to want to leave New York behind and head back home to England.

Eventually, she gives in, and these two weary souls begin the process of making magic together.  At times, the film gets a little too wrapped up in statements about "authenticity" and "the power of music."  Where Once let those ideas sit there as subtext, Begin Again makes it a point to have characters talk about what is and isn't real music once every few scenes.  Yet that habit of grandstanding manages to not bring down the movie, simply because of how earnest it all is.  Ruffalo and Knightley's charming chemistry sells those dreams, allowing their characters to be lovable instead of pretentious.  Making music is less of a choice for Dan and Gretta than it is a calling, and if they're going to do it, then it has to be passionate and represent a clear vision.  For everyone in the movie, music works as a more effective form of communication than actually speaking.  An apology, a kiss-off, an embrace -- they're all conveyed through musical performances.

Those scenes are where Begin Again is at its most powerful.  They're filmed for maximum intimacy; you can just feel the energy and emotion pouring out of them.  Performances on a stage are lit to give the musicians an angelic glow, and the outdoor scenes use handheld camerawork to capture a raw, alchemical feeling.  Of course, none of them would work if the music itself was lousy, but the catchy songs (written mostly by Gregg Alexander) make the performances even more hypnotizing.  It's a wonder why the movie spends so much time explaining, when these sequences perfectly convey how stirring music can be when everything comes together.

If it seems like this is just Once but with more plot and a bigger budget, that's because it is, and sometimes that over-familiarity dulls its impact.  But it's got such an abundance of charm that it's impossible not to be charitable towards the film.  Everything about it is just so winsome and likable that even Levine's character, the closest thing the movie has to an antagonist, seems like a pretty okay guy at the end of the day.  Most of all, it succeeds where other movies about music fail in getting at something elemental with these people and their art.  Forget about the fame, the adoration, or the money -- it's the music that matters to them.  Begin Again makes that a believable, admirable goal.

No comments:

Post a Comment