' ' Cinema Romantico: Begin Again

Tuesday, July 08, 2014

Begin Again

There is a scene in "Begin Again" in which an unknown British singer/songwriter, Greta (Keira Knightley) is being wooed to make an album by a down-to-his-dying-embers record producer, Dan (Mark Ruffalo), and he exclaims that with just a few tweaks to her sound and some fine-tuning of her look she'll go straight to the top. And that's the actual phrase he employs! "Straight to the top." And I thought, do record producers still talk like that? Did they ever talk like that? Why he even keeps employing the word "babe" as a descriptive noun. It is hokeyness of the highest order and I mean this as a compliment.

On Vulture, rock critic Jody Rosen recently wrote about Schlock Music, describing it thusly: "Schlock is extravagant, grandiose, sentimental, with an unshakable faith in the crudest melodrama, the biggest statements, the most timeworn tropes and most overwrought gestures." He may as well have been summarizing "Begin Again", a schlock movie for people who enjoy "Two Princes" as much as "Queen Jane Approximately".

Writer/Director John Carney's previous feature film was the the kitchen sink rock 'n' roll musical "Once", a teensy-tiny indie that miraculously found a devoted audience and, in turn, success it could have never predicted. His long-gestating follow-up inevitably subscribes to the rules of sequelism, even though it's not technically a sequel, bigger budget and bigger stars (Adam Levine and Cee Lo both appear leaving us but one Xtina karaoke scene short of the fabled "Voice" Trifecta) and bigger ideas. Therefore, "Begin Again's" arguing in favor of spirited individualism in a modern music industry based on saleability rings disingenuous, a film curiously unaware of the commercial means by which it's peddling its anti-commercial message. Yet this thematic failure fails to negate the final product because the film also knows that while consumers may be researched and marketed to ad nauseam, they are still, as the cliché goes, humans with two ears and a heart.

It is very consciously a film for the iTunes age, wherein artists merely need a few instruments and a laptop and they can cut a record and ignore the studio as middleman and release it themselves and rely on word of mouth (read: Twitter) to build an audience. So when Dan gets Greta in his corner, he convinces her, partly out of financial desperation, partly out of his soul-gazing, that they record not in a studio but across the romantic expanse of New York. The sounds of her singing and backing band will mingle with the noises of the city to generate a naturalistically colorful collection of songs.

One fairly significant issue of the film is the music itself. Whereas "Once" was built upon the foundation of Glen Hansard (of The Frames) and Marketa Irglova's marvelous songwriting, "Begin Again" relies primarily on Gregg Alexander of The New Radicals and, well, that's the thing with music, isn't it? It's dancing about architecture, as they say, and what hits you, hits you, and might not hit someone else. And the music of "Begin Again", despite being dutifully performed, simply does not hit me. And yet. The film still ably embodies the idea of what happens when a person is hit by music in that way. I didn't need to love the music to understand what the music was doing to its characters.

The film opens in the present at an out of the way New York club for singer/songwriters, sort of a Gaslight For Hipsters, where we see Greta take the stage and a croon a ditty to a wholly indifferent crowd.....save for one patron. Dan, of course, who in the space of that solo performance envisions how it might be brought to life with a full band, a wondrous moment capturing the almost un-earthly pull of live music. And then the film flashes back in two directions to show us what brought these two sonic acolytes to this fork in the road.

Greta has come to America with her boyfriend and music-making partner Dave Kohl (Levine) only to find herself getting left behind as the label to which he is signed gently nudges her out of the picture while simultaneously glossing up his sound and image for maximum commercial appeal. He admits he's been cheating on her and Greta walks. Dan was once an uber-successful co-founder of his own independent record label but now finds himself a drunken wreck, on the outs with his daughter and wife, and tossed away from the studio he helped found when he quarrels with his partner (Mos Def) over its artistic direction.

These relationships feel surface level, under-sketched and over-reliant on tropes, like Dan's alcoholism, less a problem than a "problem", magically resolved when near the end he picks up a can of Pepsi (another symptom of sequelism - product placement - although at least he remarks on its awful taste). Once Greta plugs in, meanwhile, it's all peaches and cream, a serendipitously easy road to success, absent of real setbacks and conflicts (her brief reunion with her ex is the falsest of fake climaxes).

The film's original title was "Can A Song Save Your Life?", likely changed because that doesn't fit on a poster and even if the film is about do-it-yourself marketing, the film itself still has to get marketed and marketers don't like a wordage cluster. Even so, the question the original epithet poses remains, and "Begin Again" definitely answers it. As in, yes. A song can save your life. Which is an argument so unbelievably earnest that it will likely cause many appraisers of its quality to recoil since, as Jody Rosen writes, "We recoil from schlock even as we lust for it, because it hits us where it counts, revealing us at our most wretchedly vulnerable and human."

For all its purporting to comment on the record industry it has far less to do with the truth of what it takes to both make music and get it released than what it emotionally engenders. In other words, "Begin Again" hits us where it counts.


Candice Frederick said...

hmmm sounds light, if anything. not in love with the premise, but i was never drawn to Once either.

Nick Prigge said...

Yeah, if Once wasn't your thing, I'm not sure this one would be either. It's really just a big-budget Once.