Thursday, July 17, 2014

Begin Again

John Carney (left) with Mark Ruffalo on the set

BEGIN AGAIN           B+            
USA  (104 mi)  2013  d:  John Carney              Official site

Oddly enough, the beginning of this film plays out much like the Coen brother’s Inside Llewyn Davis (2012), where a singer performs alone to a relatively disinterested audience in the dark smoky confines of a small club in the East Village of New York, including a clever somewhat literary use of flashback sequences to show what led up to that moment, where the heart of the film draws a line in the sand between studio processed music and a voice of authenticity, where a common theme in both is refusing to sell out to a faceless corporate music industry that for all practical purposes wants to reshape your songs in their image.  Despite the fact you’re the artist and creator, they’re the ones that end up lining their pockets, earning nine dollars out of every ten.  That tradition is called capitalism, and many an artist has lost their soul trying to make it in the crass and exploitive atmosphere that is the music business.  Made by the director of ONCE (2006), which was turned into a hit Tony award-winning musical on Broadway in 2012, winning eight Tony awards including Best Musical, John Carney was a former bass player in the Irish rock group The Frames in the early 90’s, whose lead singer Glen Hansard starred in his earlier film as the writer and singer of most of the songs, where the beauty of the film was paralleling a budding personal relationship with the collaborative artistic process of making music, turning it into a joyful and uplifting experience, much as Craig Brewer did in HUSTLE & FLOW (2005), two films that thrive on authentic atmosphere and inspiring performances, turning into exhilarating musical love fests.  Carney again features a similar storyline, where he seems to have his finger on the pulse of the music business, which has undergone drastic changes in the last decade, where the prevalence of artists putting their own music out on YouTube or iTunes has altered the playing field, allowing the artists themselves instead of some record company to determine their own destiny.  This individualized shift in marketing has led to more intimate musical releases that are not burdened with a mass-produced sound that makes every song sound the same.  While the songs here are not on the same level as those used in ONCE, they are instead far more toned down to reflect a quiet softness of the female character, nonetheless there’s an authentic degree of sweetness and sincerity from Keira Knightley’s performance (that includes singing her own songs) to generate appeal. 

Carney, who started out making music videos for The Frames, seems to specialize in creating “moments of intimacy” both in the musical numbers and in the developing personal relationships, where the entire film seems to be a collection of small and often forgotten moments that people have a tendency to overlook, but here they’re magnified into magical realms through a healing power of music that comes to personify Carney’s area of expertise.  The film actually starts out rather amateurishly, as the songs are poorly lip-synched, which causes a needless distraction, while Knightley as Greta is forced unwillingly to sing one of her songs onstage, where there’s little to no appeal in her performance.  Simultaneously, Mark Ruffalo as Dan the A & R man, a guy responsible for finding and signing new music talent, is a hard corps alcoholic whose life is tailspinning away from him, already separated from his wife Miriam (Catherine Keener), a musical journalist, and their teenage daughter Violet (Hailee Steinfeld), where in the early scenes he’s little more than a disgrace and an embarrassment, where in no time at all he’s kicked to the curb from the indie record label that he founded, spending the rest of the day drinking his troubles away.  If all of this sounds a bit pat and formulaic, it is, even uncomfortably so.  But not to worry, as that’s about to change when Carney rewinds the tape back to Greta’s first nightclub performance where Dan is seen sitting at the bar, and in his state of inebriation he hears something altogether different, which suddenly takes shape onscreen even though it’s only playing in his head, where like Disney’s FANTASIA (1940) other instruments suddenly appear onstage and start playing themselves, adding drums, cello, and piano, even a violin, where this sheepishly awkward performance that everyone else hears suddenly develops a sound.  Dan blurts out his ideas that he wants to record her, handing out his business card (where he was fired), where he has to admit he’s dead drunk and that his life is in such turmoil that it would be hard for anyone to take him seriously, but he’s emphatically optimistic about her song.  The urgency of his intentions are met with appropriate suspicion and disbelief, as who would believe that guy?  Fortunately in the modern era we can Google people’s names and Greta discovers he was an influential force in the music industry, actually reading out loud what it says about him when they meet the next day.  Dan, however could care less about the past, and is a rush of enthusiasm about the possibilities of their future working together. 

The backstory with Greta is far more intriguing, as she was professionally and romantically involved with fledgling rock star Dave Kohl (Adam Levine from Maroon 5) for the past five years, co-writing his songs, where his career took off after one of his songs was featured in a hit movie.  As he cashes in on his success, Greta gets left behind and cheated on, and despite coming to New York to be with him, she was on her way out of town until Dan’s proposition stopped her in her tracks, as he wants to record an entire album of her songs, but they’ll have to do it on the fly, as they don’t have access to a recording studio.  Out of nothing, things start to materialize, as they decide to record songs in various outdoor New York street locations, hiring a bunch of student nobodies that are thrilled to be working anywhere outside the classroom, borrowing a few seasoned musicians from artists that Dan helped along the way, including rapper CeeLo Green as Troublegum, whose hilarity is only surpassed by a surprising humanity in his character.  The street locations elevate the film into rare territory, becoming an impressionistic tribute to New York itself which is impressively rhapsodized in music, much like Woody Allen’s MANHATTAN (1979), saturating the screen in a sumptuous glow of romanticism, wondrously shared through a playlist of their favorite songs from their iPods, heightening the film with a rapturous feeling of love in the air.  Most of the music is written by Gregg Alexander of the New Radicals, though Glen Hansard also contributed the first song recorded in an alleyway called “Coming Up Roses,” Keira Knightley - Coming Up Roses (Begin Again ... - YouTub YouTube (3:14), where the sequence of song recordings come together like the mad crescendo of Busby Berkeley numbers in FOOTLIGHT PARADE (1933).  This rush of energy is the appeal of the film, as the initially dour and awkwardly uninteresting characters suddenly surge with a newfound belief in themselves, where their electrical connection is felt throughout the entire cast, becoming wonderfully infectious.  Carney has a marvelous eye for small, unembellished moments, as Dan tries to reconnect with his family, especially his aloof daughter Violet, where there are poignant, beautifully written scenes of Greta and Violet with Dan tagging along where he doesn’t even have to say a word, which is only magnified later when they all come together in a Beatles rooftop LET IT BE (1970) moment that feels spontaneously alive.  The film captures the joyous spirit of personal discovery, and while it’s bathed in musical romanticism, the overriding power is this unique emotional candor that thrives on the revelatory experiences of life itself.  

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