Begin Again (2013)
Dir: John Carney
“HULK SMASH… Hit!”
From director John Carney, best known for his 2007 film ‘Once’, this returns to similar musical waters, but with a much bigger budget and far bigger names.
Gretta (Academy Award nominee Keira Knightley) a struggling songwriter listlessly stuck in New York after following her rising star boyfriend (Adam Levine) there, is approached by washed-up A&R executive Dan (Academy Award nominee Mark Ruffalo), who is desperate for a change of fortunes in both his personal and professional life. Struggling to connect with his teenage daughter (Academy Award nominee Hailee Steinfeld) and still in love with his estranged wife (Academy Award nominee Catherine Keener), Dan makes Gretta his passion project and they produce an unconventional album together.
Carney’s earlier film ‘Once’ was a very low-budget piece of excellent film-making, I really liked it and it featured some great music. It’s probably best known for (somewhat unexpectedly) winning the ‘Best Original Song’ Academy Award for the beautiful ‘Falling Slowly’. As it was made in Dublin for around £150,000, ‘Once’ was devoid of big name stars, just heading the poster were glowing reviews.
‘Begin Again’ is a very different matter. The poster below (and the trailer) highlights each cast member’s credentials of Academy Award nominations, Grammy wins, even James Corden’s BAFTA!
I am beginning to warm to Keira Knightley, who took singing lessons and learnt to play the guitar for the role of Gretta. When she first performs however, I wasn’t sure she was really singing, it didn’t look like the sounds were actually coming from her very expressive mouth. Sure enough they weren’t, as the musical performances, really excellent as they are, were pre-recorded. I felt like that was quite a mis-step when you consider the plot point that the album is recorded as live performances in locations around New York. To me, it would make more sense to give it that authentic sound, and look, if they had recorded the vocals in the filming, as done with ‘Les Miserables‘. As this was really early in the film, it almost put me against it, then things changed.
Once the other lead character of Dan is introduced, the film does something quite clever, showing the events in his day leading up to the opening scene and Gretta’s first performance exactly as he sees it. It’s one of the most beautiful things I have seen in a film in a long time, as Dan imagines a full musical arrangement around Gretta who is alone on stage, with instruments playing themselves and the song being built up from a timid lone guitar and vocalist, into his vision of how it should be recorded. It’s incredible to see, and gets the point across perfectly.
There’s a fully developed and convincing back story for each of the main leads to provide added depth. Gretta went to New York with her boyfriend, and while he has been signed, she’s just along for the ride despite being his songwriting partner. Though he’s there to develop his music, instead he develops a serious case of doucheyness (and a bushy beard). Adam Levine is really very good, I like his sound anyway, and he’s well cast in the role here proving himself able to display the character’s different phases of development, as well as more than competently perform the musical numbers. James Corden is also great as Gretta’s friend who takes her in and ends up working on the record with her. There’s a great scene with the two of them getting slightly marinaded together, it’s completely convincing both that they could be close friends and that alcohol is involved.
A&R executive Dan hasn’t got a simple life either. Hailee Steinfeld is great as his daughter, she’s not got a huge amount to do here but pulls the focus brilliantly in her scenes, including a lovely bit of rapport between her character and Gretta. Catherine Keener is typically good as Dan’s wife, clearly still in love with him despite their separation and the reasons for it. The whole situation is explained and there are some lovely touches in the details, especially in describing their first date.
One part of the film that I really wasn’t in love with is the ending. As the credits roll there’s a final sequence that wraps things up far too completely for my liking. I fear this may be a result of producers (interesting including Judd Apatow) and distributors, and it’s completely unnecessary to the film, if it had ended just before the credits it would still have been a perfectly satisfying conclusion.
I did love the music though, and as it’s such a key to the film it’s important. The main song is excellent and very likely to gain an Oscar nomination for Best Original song again, though not as much of a surprising underdog this time.
Authenticity. The film talks about it, applauds it, wants it, but ultimately loses grasp of it with the pre-recorded tracks and overabundance of huge stars. Don’t worry, this isn’t a massive criticism as it’s still a great film, but still it’s a tiny shame that it doesn’t exactly practice what it preaches. However it’s not that I think Carney should always do the same thing again. Gretta puts it best when she says that Dave “lost the songs in the production”, the beauty and simplicity of ‘Once’ is lost under a lot of extra stuff, that beauty is definitely here, just underneath a layer of gloss.