Begin Again is a film about second chances. It tells a very familiar, traditional storyline that we’ve seen before, but is still fun to watch as we watch characters find a nontraditional way to produce a music album.
In an age where the entertainment industry puts so much emphasis on appearance, the film is also a satire of the music industry by looking at music that some deem authentic, put up against catchy tunes that are made for the dance floor.
The movie asks why we make music: is it for the love of the craft or to sell albums? The movie isn’t a full-fledged attack on the entertainment industry. It’s about finding inspiration when you reach a low point, whether in your professional or personal life. But it also makes the point of saying that nothing is wrong with letting go. Again, while not an original concept, Begin Again is still an enjoyable watch.
The film begins at a New York club. A man named Steve, played by James Corden, entertains the crowd briefly before suggesting that the audience give listen to some music by his friend.
To his left is Greta, played by Keira Knightley, who doesn’t want to come up and sing, but eventually makes her way to the stage. Her song is for anyone who has ever been alone in the city. While it’s hard to gauge the audience’s reaction, her song has a lasting effect on one patron.
We then flash back to earlier that day and are introduced to Dan Mulligan, played by Mark Ruffalo. Dan is a bit of a sad sack. He sleeps the day away and rejects every prospective musical talent he listens to on his way to work. It’s all too derivative and lacks the heart.
Dan heads to pick up his daughter, Violet played by Hailee Steinfeld, before heading to a meeting that he thinks he has.
At said meeting, we also meet Dan’s longtime business partner, Saul, played by Mos Def, and we see the growing friction between the two not because of broken bonds, but differing opinions of the music industry. More to the point, Dan believes that modern musicians are mostly monosyllabic teenagers with nothing to say. He’s not completely wrong, really. But Dan and Saul used to beat the top of their game for their independent record company, Distressed Records. Dan believes that music needs a vision, not gimmicks. While there may be some truth to that, times have changed and it’s time for Dan to go.
If Dan’s professional woes weren’t enough, he later learns from Violet that her mother thinks he is a loser. More than that, Violet knows little about her father. It’s to the point that she has a psychiatrist.
We later meet Dan’s estranged spouse, Miriam, played by Catherine Keener. We see the strains of their relationship when Miriam brings up the fact that Dan, despite wanting to bond with Violet, only shows up every now and then to spend time with her.
Depressed and dejected, Dan heads to a bar. As he drinks his sorrows away, he overhears a young woman sing a song targeted toward anyone who has ever felt alone in the city. The beat and lyrics speak to Dan to the point that he visualizes the instruments behind the woman playing by themselves.
After the young woman, Greta, finishes her song, she heads to the bar, where Dan tells her that he’s in. He wants to sign her. Trouble is that Greta writes for her own pleasure. She isn’t a performer. Dan lays it all out: he was just about to kill himself just before he heard her song. Nice save, I guess. Dan feels that his label has lost faith in him. The trouble is that people are too interested in image as opposed to authenticity. After some prodding by this man she’s just met, Greta promises to at least think about it. After all, what’s one more day in New York?
There’s an Avengers joke in here, somewhere.
Never mind. Anyway, Greta heads home and she watches a video of her with her boyfriend, Dave Cohl, played by Adam Levine himself.
The film them flashes back to show us Greta and Dave’s time together before things went south. Dave is a well known musician and his music has made its way into a motion picture that is selling out fast. When a record label wants to produce a soundtrack, it only wants the music from the film, even though Dave wants to include Greta on the album.
What happens is Greta is reduced to the role of intern: fetching coffee for the producers and listening in on recordings. What’s worse, Dave will be heading to Los Angeles to meet with a director. Only Dave.
As a result, Greta spends some time on her own and even runs into her old friend, Steve, who plays music near a subway station.
Greta watches a video she and Dave made of them recording a song, and the film then flashes back within the flashback to show the two recording music. The song in question is Greta’s Christmas gift to Dave.
Back within the first flashback, however, Dave returns from Los Angeles to present a song he made while in California. After listening to the song for just a few seconds, Greta gets the hint and hits Dave, hard. The song is for someone else, a woman that Dave met in Los Angeles. Things just happened, he says, and he has to see it through.
So Greta packs her things and moves in with Steve. While there, she’s in the middle of purchasing a plane ticket to go back home across the pond, but Steve will have none of that. In fact, he thinks that Greta should come with him to the bar.
She does, though she’s in for a surprise when Steve calls her on stage to sing for the audience. Though initially reluctant, she eventually sings her song.
Sometime later, Dan gets a call from Greta and the two meet. Though Greta still insists that she writes for pleasure, Dan sees potential in her.
Saul isn’t bowled over when he hears Greta play, but she’s given a chance if she can produce a demo.
How do Dan and Greta plan to do this? Well, going by what Dan says, they don’t need to rent a studio. They’ll just record outside and have each song based in a different location as a tribute to New York. Damn the consequences and if the police come a-knocking, they just keep on moving. The plan is to play everywhere at anytime!
Time to make an album
Again, the plot to Begin Again isn’t all that original. In fact, from what I’ve read in other reviews, this film is very similar to a 2006 film also directed by John Carney called Once. Me personally, I have never seen Once, so any similarities to that film aren’t all that important to me.
While the storyline isn’t novel, I did appreciate the film’s commentary on the modern music industry. We live in an age where events like Miley Cyrus twerking and Justin Bieber egging a house are considered major events. Scandalous stories surrounding the rich and famous are nothing new, but the idols for prepubescent boys and girls are getting younger and younger. They sell out concerts not necessarily because of their musical prowess- though that’s one person’s opinion- but because their image sells. They don’t come off as genuine because they’re constantly saying and doing things that will keep them in the public light. Not to imply that the aforementioned examples were because Cyrus and Bieber were in danger of fading out of the public spotlight, though.
The point is, in Dan’s mind, that the new guard of music is more style than substance. We see this play out through Dave’s rise, but also in the dialogue itself. At one point, Dan asks Greta to name one consistently authentic artist. At first, she picks Bob Dylan, but Dan shoots him down on the grounds that Dylan constantly reinvents himself. Who do they agree on? Randy Newman. Given how much emphasis is put on the artist instead of their art, it’s easy to see why Dan has become so disillusioned with the same label he had a hand in creating. People aren’t interested in music that means something- they just want something that they can dance to and the music can be as gimmicky as possible. At the same time, though, I wonder if the inclusion of artists like Cee Lo Green and Adam Levine was done to draw in viewers or because the writers felt they could bring something to the storyline, but I digress.
This movie isn’t about longing for the old days so much as it is trying to reinvigorate what made those days so special. Dan gets a glimpse of that when he hears Greta perform. Though Greta isn’t interested in the deal, we at least tell that both of them are more interested in the craft of making music than the end result. Much like a Kickstarter, the film is a love letter to those who want to make art on their own steam. Greta and Dan don’t fully do this on their own, as Cee Lo Green’s character, Trouble Gum, has enough connections to help the two get their project off the ground. However, Gum is just there to help out a bit and the two don’t rely on him every time they need help.
However, while the film isn’t a nostalgia trip, it does highlight- particularly through Dave’s musical journey- how the spark we once had while creating art can suddenly vanish if we get caught up in fame and fortune. At one point, Dave has Greta listen to a new recording. She calls it stadium pop and says that Dave’s song is lost. And this is her immediate reaction, without having to mull it over. You can’t have all the fame and fortune without losing some of the creative magic that got you there in the first place. I’m reminded of a scene from the show Extras, where Ricky Gervais’ character, Andy, wants to be in great projects, but also just wants to remain in the public light. He’s given a choice: he can either be rich and famous or have integrity and respect. Andy wants both, but he’s told that only a handful of people in the world get to have both, and he’ll never be one of them.
The point I’m trying to make is, without doing any sort of research, the artists, actors, musicians and entertainers that we look up to change all of the time to keep up with the times. Sometimes you’ll have people, who don’t change who they are at all, and that’s perfectly fine, but others just adapt on the grounds that doing so will keep them relevant. This movie would probably be better for me to analyze if I was a walking music encyclopedia, but because I’m not, I can only base this off of what little I know about the ever-changing music industry. But it did appeal to me when it spoke of doing what you love not because you want to get noticed, but because you appreciate the craft. I’m a journalism major and want to break into the field, but I’m not only blogging because I want to get noticed. I do it because I enjoy writing, but also because I enjoy mediums like comic books, television and movies.
Redemption is one of the film’s bigger themes, with Dan being so cynical with modern music and his life to the point where he wanted to kill himself. Only after hearing Greta did he find light at the end of his tunnel. Cliché, yes, but I enjoyed it all the same. He became inspired to turn his life around and prove that people still like authenticity in their music. More than that, he decides to strengthen the weak bond with his wife and daughter, to his eventual success.
And Greta has a chance at happiness after Dave leaves her for another woman. She could have just written depressing songs all day and play them to her cat, as we know she did at one point, but she moves forward with her music. Despite the deep bond she and Dave had over their music, she realizes that it’s not the end of the world and there’s still a reason to keep doing what she loves. Despite having no social media presence, no demo, and no sort of sponsorship, Greta is taking on what seems like an impossible task.
I like the way the film is shot. Like Obvious Child, this film shows New York as very vibrant and an active nightlife. In addition, we see how big a role music plays in the city with Dan’s idea to play anywhere at any time, eventually drawing in random citizens to stop and listen.
The movie is fun to watch, the songs are catchy and there are plenty of comedic moments. One highlight, something I actually want to use at some point, is a party scene where Steve has everyone freeze in place while he plays music that is near impossible to not dance to.
At times, the film’s storyline is presented out of sequence. I’m personally a big fan of nonlinear storytelling and telling a narrative from different perspectives if it’s done correctly. We see the opening scene of Greta performing three different times, all from different perspectives, but each time we revisit the scene, it’s to fill in blanks that were left out of the original scene. It didn’t feel out of place and it explained the circumstances that brought the characters to the bar in the first place.
From his first appearance, we would think Dan as an unlikable, sad excuse for a man: he sleeps around the house, doesn’t have a close relationship with his daughter and spends his time yearning for the good old days. He’s stuck in the past. However, as the film progresses, we learn that Maggie had an affair, which led to his nervous breakdown. That, coupled with Violet not thinking much of him and losing his job paint him as a broken man. However, he’s not a deadbeat. He makes a concerted effort to become a better man, and this comes through in Mark Ruffalo’s performance. We know that Dan is sitting on a lot of rage, but he manages to keep it all in check and never has a big blowout scene where he completely falls apart. Even the scene where he’s fired, he doesn’t just fall to pieces.
And despite how frustrating his family life is, they aren’t at each other’s necks. Ruffalo has good chemistry with both Keener and Steinfeld and all three have very warm moments together. There’s a scene where Dan goes to Miriam’s place to freshen up, while also on the lookout for other men who may be around. There weren’t, but Miriam would have told him that. That’s probably the best news Dan could have ever received.
Not to mention that including Violet in the band gave Dan a chance to bond with his daughter, even if Greta was the linchpin that made it happen. Dan really does come off like a father who is just trying to find some common ground with his daughter, but still acts like the dad who chastises his daughter for wearing a suggestive skirt. Granted, Dan doesn’t go through some huge transformation by the end of the film, but he does still help Greta produce an album, given his knowledge of and connections to the music industry.
And I never would have expected Keira Knightley to have such a great singing voice. Knightley almost appears to be making fun of herself in the role, when she admits that Brits can be a bit snobbish. Not interested in fame, Greta is more focused on maintaining her dignity and respect. She doesn’t care about making money. That doesn’t mean she’s not knowledgeable about the entertainment industry. She has a great moment where she asks why Saul receives so much of the profits made from album sales when she’s the one who did the singing. Clearly, Greta is meant to be the sticking up for the little guy…er, little gal, in this case. She would be happy if everyone heard her music for as little cost as possible.
And Greta, to me, never came off as overconfident or cocky. Her relationship with Dave exposed her to the greater musical world, but as Dave’s popularity grew, she became second fiddle. I loved the scene where she figures out that Dave has been cheating on her. It’s all just done through facial expressions and her reaction to his song. And when she records her own song and plays it to his voice mail, there’s real anger in her voice for how she’s been fooled by him.
She forms and has great relationships with the others, though. She and Steve talk like they’ve been friends for years and they have playful banter that shows how far their friendship stretches. And her relationship with Dan remains professional. There are glimpses of moments where it seems like they could develop feelings for each other, but the film doesn’t allow that to happen. We don’t get any sort of awkward love triangle. Greta, as I mentioned, helps Dan strengthen his relationship with his family by giving Violet advice and suggesting that she also play in the band.
I don’t have much to say about Adam Levine, though. He plays the part well and is representative of the artist who gets swept up by fame and doesn’t realize how good his relationship with Greta was until she sang him her song.
I do have a few negatives, though. As mentioned, the film’s plot is nothing new and while there are a few elements that went against my expectations, some of the beats are very predictable.
For starters, I have to wonder how plausible it actually is to record music in random locations throughout New York without much prior notice. I mean, noise disturbances much? But then, the film addresses this by having citizens for and against the random music.
And the musicians that Dave recruits- they all appear to be aspiring artists. I question whether people would realistically drop everything they’re doing to create an album for a producer that just randomly approached them and couldn’t even pay them.
Toward the end, the film feels the need to tackle online distribution and Greta’s decision on what to do with her album. Now I won’t say what she chooses to do, but ultimately, I feel the ultimate achievement came from her and Dan’s success at making the album at all. They tried and succeeded when the odds were heavily against them. That’s all we needed to see. The film didn’t need to bookend the journey because, all this time, it didn’t seem realistic that they could pull off creating the album. Just leave it at that and let the audience assume the end result.
Despite my criticisms, Begin Again is still an uplifting movie that provides great commentary on the state of the music industry. It questions whether authenticity can still matter in an age where image is increasingly becoming what sells albums. Do we seek fame and money or remain the tortured artist that creates beautiful works? While the plot is very familiar and may be too cliché for some, I still enjoyed the movie and the songs, more than once, managed to put a smile on my face. Helped by some great chemistry through the lead performances of Mark Ruffalo and Keira Knightley, Begin Again is a film I’d recommend. It’s not for everyone, but I think it’s worth a watch.
Also, you can learn a lot about a person based on their Ipod playlist. Something to remember.