Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Begin Again (2014) – Review

Review: Begin Again is a sweet music drama about picking yourself up off the ground when life gets you down (while also taking a few shots at the commercial music industry).

The film is about Greta and Dan. Greta is a songwriter who comes to America with her boyfriend Dave, a singer on the verge of becoming a rock star. As he blows up, they break up after Dave cheats on her while he is on the road leaving her alone in New York City, with only a friend’s couch to sleep on. Greta is devastated because she had always felt like they were a team (even working on music together) and he abandoned her. Meanwhile, Dan is a record producer and co-owner of an indie label; however, things are not going well for him either. He has been on a long slide and is an alcoholic. Things have become so bad that his ex-wife and daughter feel slightly estranged and his music partners have thrown him out of the business. He has nothing left. Greta and Dan come together when Dan sees and hears Greta (in a state of anguish) perform one of her songs. It seems to pull him out of his stupor and invigorates him to make and album with her. Maybe they can help each other move on and begin again (see what I did there…).

Writer-director John Carney presents Begin Again as a modern musical – one in which the music aspects of the drama come in the form of performed songs by musicians, songs that also double as emotional outlets for the characters. In this regard, Carney has done quite well. The songs and music work very well within the construct of the narrative. The music is by no means groundbreaking or amazing, but it seems to fit nicely into today’s rock/pop genre, and most importantly it gets its message across (speaking for what the characters are feeling). I also did enjoy the typical musical cliché montages (they are almost always great) like “finding the band” or “making the album”.

Carney also uses his narrative to raise very directed criticisms with the commercial music industry. Carney certainly finds himself on the side of musicians and artistic integrity. The film to some extent berates the industry for over commercializing and focusing on other aspects than the music (which theoretically should be the most important aspect). Carney is a proponent of what seems like music’s future: one in which there are no all-powerful record labels and bands promote themselves and solely release music online (basically turning every band into an indie band), theoretically doing away with the commercialization of music and musicians (major labels to some extent dictate what gets played on the radio, which then in turn seems to force popular music to all sort of sound the same so that it may appeal to the masses, and thereby artistry, creativity, and the soul of music is lost – this is what Carney is fighting against). This viewpoint is nice in theory, but also feels a little naïve.

The strongest feature of Begin Again is its characters Greta and Dan (but especially Greta). Carney goes out of his way in the narrative to fully flesh out the characters and make them relatable for the audience, by giving them many character moments and full back stories. This works very well and pays off, especially when the characters then perform their music. I also liked that Carney does not feel the need to make the film into a clichéd romantic comedy with Greta and Dan falling in love. That is too easy, and it would not have allowed the characters to really grow and move on with their lives past the low points that the audience first finds them in. Their narrative arcs would feel cheapened.

Begin Again, however, does not quite have the emotional weight that it could have or probably should have. Carney seems intent on keeping things rather light, when the emotions and issues that Greta and Dan face are fairly heavy. This, thusly, creates sort of an emotional disconnect and leaves the film feeling less satisfying on an emotional level. Carney also has a big issue with the ending feeling very unsubstantial (something that he tries to rescue with a decent scene during the credits). There is not a sense of real closure to the film, which is disappointing because the audience does care about Greta and Dan and wants to see their story(ies) tied up in a meaningful way, and Carney just seems to miss this narrative moment. Possibly, this unsatisfying feeling stems from Carney not having Greta and Dan end up together when we, as the audience, are somewhat hardwired by film’s narrative language (especially based on hundreds of recent similar narrative films) to expect and maybe even want that ending. Mostly, however, it feels like Carney just could not come up with a strong enough ending while keeping the tone light throughout.

Overall, Begin Again works and succeeds on what its sets out to be. It is an entertaining lighthearted musical drama with strong character performances and good (enough) music. What is disappointing, however, is that it could have been very powerful. It just never really seems to have that ambition.

Technical, aesthetic & acting achievements: Many film fans know John Carney for his amazing and emotionally powerful film Once, and thus probably hoped that Begin Again would follow suit; however, Carney has seemingly sought out to make a film with a broader appeal and has thus made something far more lighthearted tonally (which is somewhat ironic, considering the film’s clear appeal for artistic integrity over commercialization). That said, however, I do not see this cynically as Carney chiefly trying to make a generic Hollywood film, as Begin Again clearly is not that; it stylistically and narratively firmly has its roots in independent film. I just think he tried to make something different and it just did not come off quite as well. Fans of his work should still enjoy the film though.

As mentioned in the review, the film’s music is well suited. The score and songs mostly written by Gregg Alexander (of the New Radicals) have some very good moments and are performed beautifully by the cast. Yaron Orbach’s cinematography is also very good. The film has a very naturalistic look and takes full advantage of New York City’s inherent charms. Chad Keith’s production design too is naturalistic, creating a world that feel very authentic for the characters to inhabit (doing part of the actors’ job for them).

Begin Again features a few musician cameos like CeeLo Green and Yasiim Bey and good work from actors in small roles, chiefly from Catherine Keener. Hailee Steinfeld is good as Dan’s daughter Violet. Her character seems to serve Dan’s character arc more than her own, but Steinfeld nonetheless brings her to life with fun, slightly edgy energy. James Corden is fantastic as Greta’s friend Steve. He is very funny and seems to steal all his scenes by pulling all the attention. Adam Levine is also good as Greta’s rock star boyfriend Dave. I am not very familiar with his work with Maroon 5, but he sure can sing. Mark Ruffalo brings a lot of depth to Dan. His performance to some extent feels like a clichéd caricature of the typical sort of wacky “indie music guy” but Ruffalo also has a real sadness, making the first level feel like it is just an act to try and hide his immense pain. He brings layers to what would in most cases been a fairly straightforward performance and character. Keira Knightley is easily the best part of Begin Again. She can sing (despite not being a singer in any regard), helped along by songs that suit her voice. She is incredibly charming and likable as Greta, pulling the audience in, and nails all the dramatic moments as well. I will say, however, that she is maybe not completely right for the character. She is far too inherently cool. Throughout the film, she is stylishly dressed and seemingly effortlessly alluring and fashionable (reminding me of Audrey Hepburn in Funny Face a bit), when Greta feels like a woman that would not be very fashion forward, not necessarily ugly or unkempt, but just not as put together in terms of style and overall look. But regardless of all that, Knightley is wonderful in the film.

Summary & score: Begin Again has a good set of songs (a key ingredient to any musical), strong leading performances, and a good message, but is a little let down by its upbeat nature when deeper emotion would have made it all the more dynamic. 6/10

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