Release Date: July 11th, 2014 (UK & US)
Genre: Drama; Music
Starring: Keira Knightley, Mark Ruffalo
Why do they get nine out of ten of her dollars? Those are the words that spring from the mouth of Keira Knightley’s Gretta, a talented musician with a newfound shrewdness for business economics and life in general. Her question is aimed at record label producer Saul (Yasiin Bey aka Mos Def) who likely knows more about the dials on an Auto-Tune system than he does real musical verve.
But this isn’t a straightforward examination of the successes and failures of the contemporary music landscape. That is an underlying — and at times on the nose — theme, but not the film’s primary prerogative. Begin Again is more tuned into people, and how the relationships between those people unfold within a high intensity city, surrounded by an even higher intensity business.
We begin with an impressive James Corden as best friend Steve, encouraging a reluctant Gretta to get up and play one of her songs in a dingy New York City bar. She’s good, but through the murmurs and glass-smashing nobody takes much notice. Apart from Dan (Mark Ruffalo), who looks a little worse for wear. Dan, as it transpires, is a struggling record producer and former partner of the aforementioned Saul. Differing business models caused the split, a common occurrence in Dan’s life — he is also separated from his wife and bears the brunt of a friction-fuelled relationship with his daughter. Alcohol is his solution, which leads him to a dingy New York City bar.
And then we begin again, only this time our two central characters arrive imbued with backstory. The non-linear storytelling technique used early in the film is one of a few nuances implemented by director John Carney that help to maintain the freshness of what otherwise might be an occasionally dour narrative. When we first meet Gretta and Dan their individual baggage is evident, and because both Knightley and Ruffalo instantly come across empathetically, our affection greatly increases as their bad experiences are unveiled.
Dan is at odds both personally and professionally. He lives alone in a dank apartment that has probably seen more hangovers than clean bed sheets. Much to his ineffectual chagrin, his daughter Violet (Hailee Steinfeld) wears attire unsuitable for school. “Jodie Foster from Taxi Driver,” is Dan’s unsavoury description. It’s a good thing Gretta is around to interject as wardrobe advisor in between bouts of album recording.
Gretta used to be outgoing and inspired until she and ex-boyfriend Dave Kohl (Adam Levine) unceremoniously severed ties. She becomes those things again when in Dan’s company, but their partnership thankfully doesn’t venture down generic romantic channels when you get the feeling it might. Carney, who directed and wrote the screenplay, has form in the genre — he helmed the much lauded indie music-drama Once, and puts the positive expertise gained from that to use here.
Ruffalo and Knightley excel individually and collectively. Ruffalo is particularly full of off-kilter charm as the scruffy music lover trying to maintain originality in an increasingly banal industry. When the actor is in his element — quirky, unfiltered and eccentric — he is really great, and he’s in his element for the duration. In a tough role to get right, Knightley manages to be genuinely likeable. It is a characterisation that can have thankless, mopey elements, however Knightley carries Gretta with realistic ambition — her talent is never really in question, just her own personal desire to work on an album — therefore we don’t have to sit through endless hurdles of self-doubt.
That being said, from a broad perspective the film does exist in a picture perfect world. Even though Dan is no longer with his wife, terrifically portrayed by Catherine Keener, the duo still have a budding relationship (in other words, they get along more than they argue). Gretta, on the day before she is set return to England, somehow finds herself playing her own song in front of the only guy willing to take a punt on her. Despite a quip about possible rainfall, the sun also always seems to be shining. However, any potential misgivings regarding circumstance play second fiddle to engaging performances and otherwise unsentimental storytelling.
Bubbling underneath all the character drama (you could say it is the film’s bassist) is a plot about the commercialisation of the music industry. Dan is the victim of this shift away from ingenuity, a notion captured in a funny yet somewhat overtly glaring scene that sees the song scout try unsuccessfully to remove wall “art” from his record label premises. “We need vision, not gimmicks,” he bemoans having just endured an endless stream of overproduced pop demos.
As an A&R man, there is also a compelling dynamic between Dan and Gretta. In an electric conversation over drinks, we can literally see Dan squirm around on his stool as he talks about compromising in order to, “Get people in [the door] before the music can do its work.” In a way Gretta is more of a purist than he, though that might be expected given she is the artist.
The proverbial ‘bad’ side of modern music is embodied by a bizarre record exec who flaunts that cocky Bradley Cooper vibe from American Hustle. Carney does afford some leeway to the idea that music and money are worst enemies by including the horrendously named Troublegum (CeeLo Green), one of Dan’s prized discoveries who still has his back. This allows for a hilarious impromptu rap scene that probably accurately reflects how CeeLo converses in real life.
The New York setting serenades the film with helping of authenticity — while doing press for the movie, Knightley spoke of how the crew adopted a guerrilla filmmaking style when shooting in back alleys and on rooftops. The songs themselves are woody and energetic, and certainly mirror Dan’s desperation to save the spirit of music. The soundtrack isn’t as earthy as something like Inside Llewyn Davis, or even Crazy Heart, but like in those films, the songs do play a part in ensuring proceedings don’t begin to flounder.
Begin Again balances carefully developed characters and musical intermissions with a somewhat stinging appraisal of how music is produced today. Gretta simply wants to write songs and release them for anyone’s consumption. She would charge as little as a dollar for her album. By the way, you can purchase Begin Again’s year-old soundtrack for £5.99 on iTunes. Huh. At least the film itself sticks to its admirable laurels.
Images copyright (©): The Weinstein Company