It happens quite often: a high-level executive in the entertainment industry stumbles upon a performance or a piece of work of an artist that sparks a high-level of interest. The executive sees something they can sell, or finds the artist to be fresh, innovative and honest in what they do. The executive believes that with a little promotion, they can turn a small, cult following into a world-wide phenomenon. They talk a good game and convince the artist of they have potential for fame and fortune as well as retaining a good amount of creative control. But the moment they sign, the artist must conform to standards completely opposite from what got them noticed in the first place, simply to fit the box the executive believes the artist need to be in. This is the basis for Begin Again, a film that does a terrific job examining the concept of reconnecting to one’s artistic integrity in a world that is so complacent with conformity.
Dan (Mark Ruffalo) is a washed-up music producer living out of boxes in a run-down apartment after leaving his wife (Catherine Keener) a year or so earlier. His daughter, Violet (Hailee Steinfeld), has all but given up on him (and in some ways, herself as well) and he no longer sees eye-to-eye with his business partner (Mos Def). When he’s fired for his inability of bringing in any new “popular” artists (or make any of his long shots stick), he’s ready to destroy what’s left of himself through alcohol. That’s when he hears his kindred spirit, Greta (Keira Knightley), reluctantly sing a song she wrote about her ex-boyfriend, Dave (Adam Levine), who she recently left for reasons we aren’t aware of yet.
The song is hauntingly beautiful and is played in its entirety twice within the first thirty or so minutes of the film, which opens with the unplugged version — just Greta alone on stage with her stunning vocals and her guitar. It’s a chance to get to know Greta in a way that is far more personal than a series of expositional scenes (which come later) could ever be. The second time we hear the song is through the lens of Dan’s drunken mental break. It’s a riveting moment of delirious joy, as Dan imagines the accompaniment from an orchestra of other instruments, turning the song into a poetic percussion of life.
Ruffalo and Knightley are both tremendously quiet actors, so subtle in almost everything they do. Even as they break down in bursts of anger, fear or tears, they still live within a very personal and private shell. Together, they paint a complete portrait of an artist who isn’t looking for fame and a producer who wants to redefine himself by returning to the reason he loves music so much — finding and nurturing the authenticity of an artist who doesn’t try to be something they’re not.
Levine does a surprisingly good job of playing with that idea on a broader scale, playing a musician who loses his way after hitting it big, only to regret it later. Blinded by the bright lights of fame, he makes a dozen mistakes, including cheating on Greta, that cause him to lose sight of what makes his music so important. To try and rectify these mistakes, he records one of Greta’s songs, but changes almost every aspect of it, so as to lose the meaning of the words to a hyper mix of pop music bastardization. It’s an example that illustrates even when an artist realizes their mistakes, selling out doesn’t always allow you to return to (or get back) what you lost. It’s a big reason for why Dan tries so hard to keep from promoting such banality.
It’s a running theme that also finds its way into Dan’s personal life as he tries to “find” his daughter under all of the consumer and societal influences that have recently plagued her, turning her from a beautiful young woman into a wanna-be hooker (or as Dan says, “Jodie Foster from Taxi Driver). Violet believes this type of look is what will make her popular and help her attain the interest of the boy she likes, but both Dan and Greta see it differently; that being natural and true to yourself is far sexier than leaving hardly anything to the imagination. I do wish the relationship between Dan and Violet would have been explored in a deeper context, but it does work to clarify that the commercialization of popularity is itself just an illusion and shouldn’t be used to justify ones decisions.
As Dan tells Greta after revealing himself to be the owner of a record label (and her smart decision to Google him… right in front of him), there are hardly any commercial artists that haven’t been created by a set of company executives. They may seem to be original or anti-commercial, but that is simply a persona developed to sell more product. He doesn’t like that idea of molding an artist into something the market thinks they need or want, and instead tries to cultivate the honesty of an artist, to allow them the freedom to create the magic that the artist has within them. In his mind, there isn’t any inspiration or creativity within the studio system anymore and he wants no part of that.
In order to combat this lack of innovation, Dan takes it upon himself to record an album with Greta by using the ambiance of the city to heighten the feel and creative possibilities of the songs. He pulls together a ragtag band of instrumentalists to interpret the music, recruits a group of kids playing on the street for background vocals on one song, and takes up the bass guitar to jam with the rest of them on another — all to utilize the magic of New York city to heighten the genuine creativity and honesty of Greta and her lyrics.
The songs that we are given the pleasure of hearing are beautifully written and Knightley does a tremendous job vocalizing the emotions (as does Levine in the performance of his songs). There are times when the emotion doesn’t quite match her expressions, but when they do, they are quite effecting. In one scene, Greta gets drunk in response to finding out Dave has won an award, which leads to writing a song and then drunk dialing him to sing it for him. Her vulnerability shines through in every ounce of her body, making the performance equal parts amusing and devastating.
Director and writer John Carney (who also wrote some of the lyrics) wants to be as authentic as possible in order to embody the message of the film through the way he visualizes the story. And though I must admit this isn’t necessarily the most innovative, or even the most creatively crafted film, what Carney is able to do is bring out an honesty that the majority of (if not all) big-budget, CGI-laden films are incapable of. Through his lens, and with the help of his two main stars, Carney produces a rare piece of art that appeals to the masses by staying true to itself. It doesn’t care what anyone thinks of it, and because of that, I enjoyed it all the more.
My Grade: A
Next week, new movies include Planes: Fire & Rescue, The Purge: Anarchy and Sex Tape. If you would like to see a review of one of these, or any other film out next week, please respond in the comments below.