On the Silver Screen – Begin Again
Begin Again is the story of disgraced music executive Dan (Mark Ruffalo) who is at rock bottom in his life and career but finds inspiration when he meets talented singer-songwriter Greta (Keira Knightley) and throws himself into the project of creating an album with her.
In terms of story and characterisation this film is fairly predictable. The story is about redemption through rediscovery and a shared healing brought on by a common passion. Ruffalo runs the gamut of “down on your luck” clichés with drinking heavily, living in a small apartment, being estranged from his family and being fired in a spectacular fashion from the business he helped create. Knightley’s character arc involves her feeling alone in a strange city after a bad break-up and rediscovering what’s important to her through her music.
This all sounds fairly “tick the box” in terms of characterisation and it kind of is but the execution of this well trodden formula is so well done that I really didn’t mind. I found the story to be really engaging and the focus on some well written characters who inspire the audience to root for them. It would have been easy for the story to favour one protagonist over the other especially given they have their separate lives outside of each other but I never found the film focusing more on Dan than Greta -or vice versa- at any point in the narrative and I liked that it adopted this binary protagonist structure, it made the film seem larger and their project all the more important. Ruffalo and Knightley play their roles very well with particular Kudos to Ruffalo who plays his role as if he’s a ticking time bomb of energy just waiting to go off.
The film keeps it small with the supporting cast with only Greta’s friend Steve (James Corden), Greta’s ex-boyfriend Dave (Maroon 5’s Adam Levine), Dan’s ex-wife and daughter Miriam and Violet (Catherine Keener and Hailee Steinfeld respectively) and Dan’s executive former partner Saul (Mos Def credited as Yasiin Bey) getting any measurable screen time. All of these characters exist mainly to prop up Dan and Greta with the exception of Dave and Violet who have small character arcs in the film.
I really liked how the story was told and thought that seeing the first meeting of Greta and Dan from three different perspectives at the beginning was an interesting choice, it really showed how important this meeting was and smoothly gave us the circumstances that lead to it. As someone who doesn’t particularly like romantic comedies I appreciated that the film doesn’t go down that road completely, the growing relationship between Dan and Greta is a friendship rather than a love affair and Dan’s family are kept in the narrative showing us that ultimately, reconciling with them is his goal. It was good that Dave isn’t portrayed as a completely villainous influence despite the fact that he cheats on Greta, when he is reintroduced into the story they are able to have a civil conversation and the exchange is written from the point of view of him being a nice enough guy despite the wrong that he’s done, that’s something that felt real to me and I appreciated that. My only criticism in terms of story execution is that the ending doesn’t quite feel like an ending, there’s an epilogue of sorts during the credits but I left with a bit of an unresolved feeling, fairly minor in the grand scheme of things but it was there.
A film like this will rise and fall based on the music, there’s a lot of music in the film most of it sung by Adam Levine or Keira Knightley -she has a lovely singing voice, who knew?- and it’s good, or at least I thought it was good. Musically speaking the film was in line with what I like and what I listen to. The main theme would be authenticity, there’s lots of references to teenage pop sensations who are ultimately bland and lifeless and that happens to be a view that I share with John Carney. When the characters were listening to music, lots of it was stuff that I liked as well so I was completely on board with this from minute one, in fact I had purchased the album on Amazon Music before I had even left the screen, though it cost a little more than $1 -if you see the movie you’ll understand. I’d say it achieves the promise of authenticity through the quality of the songs and the radical idea Dan has of recording an album with the sounds of New York City in the track, that’s something I would actually really like to hear on a conceptual level. I liked the background subplot of Dave selling out as he became more and more successful, that was a nice touch to contrast with Greta’s music.
There was some great imagery throughout the film, my favourite scene involved Dan hearing Greta’s music for the first time and visualising all the other instruments coming in at different points to enhance the sound. The outdoor recording in some of New York’s signature locales always looked great and kept showing the audience people really enjoying what they were doing. I also liked that the film draws attention to the power of music making the most banal imagery seem all the more interesting which was shown by scenes punctuated with music that wouldn’t normally be associated with that sort of image, making it seem unorthodox yet somehow working. The importance of music to the characters and the story is never downplayed.
Overall, I thought this a really good story that was well told and well performed. I liked most of the music featured and the way it was used was great. The ending is a little abrupt but the character arcs are mostly completed in a satisfying way. It’s just a really good time while it lasts and a lot of fun to sit through.