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Non-Review Review: Begin Again

Music is absolutely wonderful. It’s a method of communication that has the tremendous ability to bring people together, and to help set mood and tone. Of course, there’s all sorts of delightful complications to it – although songs may capture a particular moment in the life of the songwriter, as if trapping emotions in amber, they also capture particular moods and moments for the person listening to the music. A snippet of a song overhead faintly on a radio through an apartment wall can serve as a gateway back in time.

Although – speaking strictly scientifically – smell is the sense that leads most directly to memory, music has perhaps the strongest emotional resonance. Beloved songs provide a snapshot of something as transcendental as sensation and atmosphere. It is very hard to put these sentiments into words, to articulate through language. A guitar chord struck at the right time in the right rhythm, or a syllable stressed in one direction rather than any other, can say so much in such a small space.

Begin Again is a charming romantic ode to the power of music, beautifully and elegantly capturing the romance of song.

Playing along...

Playing along…

To be fair, the plot of Begin Again is all but inevitable. Dan is a washed-up (and divorced) music producer who has failed to keep up with the times around him. Alcoholic and struggling, Dan is an absolute mess. Through freak coincidence, Dan finds his way into the right New York bar at the right time and overhears a song by Greta. Greta is a song-writer who moved over to New York with her boyfriend, but instead finds herself working through her own issues.

The idea that music can bring two people together into a non-love story is something that writer and director John Carney explored with Once. In some respects, Begin Again can be seen to explore familiar ground. With a dynamic that seems to occupy some middle-ground between friendship and flirtation, Dan and Greta find a way to help each other. Greta finds a way to help Dan put his life back together. Dan finds a way to help Greta produce an album while remaining “authentic.”

Everybody's in the same boat...

Everybody’s in the same boat…

The movie throws around the word “authentic” a lot, which is almost a cliché in any film about a creative industry. Artists must inevitably face the prospect of artistic compromise to achieve what they set out to do, while facing an industry without any artistic credibility. It is well-worn ground in just about any film set within the confines of the movie or the music industry, and Begin Again is no different. Dan is presented as a one-in-a-million record producer, one who is almost too good for this cruel industry.

And, yet, despite the fact that a lot of this is fairly easy to chart and a lot of it seems quite standard, Begin Again hits all the right notes. Begin Again basks in all the assorted clichés about producing art and dealing with business realities, but it gets away with them because it comes from a place that feels almost innocent and enthusiastic. There’s a sense that Carney honestly and completely believes in the story that he is telling and the people who inhabit it.

A walk in the park...

A walk in the park…

Begin Again avoids easy cynicism. It doesn’t waste too much time trying to convince us that Dan is a horrible person. Sure, he’s a jerk and he’s unreliable and he’s afraid of change, but the movie doesn’t suggest that he’s hiding a heart of gold. Indeed, quite early on we get a scene of a former client extolling his virtues and insisting that Dan isn’t very good at hiding his romantic outlook behind a veneer of practised cynicism.

Similarly, the movie never feels like it forces the romantic tension between Dan and Greta. There’s no disastrous misunderstanding. There’s no awkward telegraphed “oh no, the collaboration is in jeopardy!” sequence that a lesser movie might attempt. There’s no forced suspense, no over-written tension. Carney is happy to let the film flow in the direction that he wants it to flow, without feeling the need to impose a familiar structure on it.

No need to make a song and dance about it...

No need to make a song and dance about it…

Instead, Begin Again just basks in music. The movie comes from a place that has an obvious and abiding affection for music’s ability to convey so much in so little space. Dan conspires to record a live album recorded in New York, as if capturing the spirit of the city in a digital recording. Greta knows a relationship is over from the subtext of a song recorded thousands of miles away. A music recording provides a portal back to an earlier time.

In one of the movie’s most delightfully grounded moment, Dan and Greta listen to an iPod in New York while watching the world going on around them. “Even the most banal thing is imbued with greatness,” Dan reflects on the power of music, recalling how his first date with his wife consisted of nothing but wandering around New York listening to her disc man. Whether flowing from Greta or simply playing on her headphones, music is a way of making the personal and intimate seem universal and epic.

Striking a chord...

Striking a chord…

After all, music is unique in the way that it interacts with life around it. Literature, film and theatre all require focus to be directed in a singular direction. While we may associate films or books with broad moments in our lives, the fact that music can provide a backdrop to just about anything means that it easier to associate with specific events or occasions. We may remember the film that we saw on a first date or the summer we saw a particularly informative film, but we remember precisely how we felt when we heard a song playing in the background at a particular moment.

Mark Ruffalo is great as Dan, having honed his ability to play “loveable losers” into a fine art form. He’s very good at playing a washed-up and dysfunctional man, but one who doesn’t hide his romanticism particularly well. Keira Knightley is solid as Greta, if not quite as good as Ruffalo. Carney rounds out the cast with wonderful supporting players like Catherine Keener and Hailee Steinfeld, along with Yasiin Bay and James Corden. (Cee Lo Green makes a wonderful impression in a small scene-stealing role.)

Music to their ears...

Music to their ears…

Begin Again is a charmingly romantic piece of work, effectively an ode to music, and an absolute triumph.

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2 Responses

  1. Sad to say I saw this whole movie as one big cliche’ and not to talented of one.. But ah well..that’s why we all have different opinions!! 😀

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