Monday, 21 July 2014

New York City. A small, intimate bar. A musician invites an old friend to perform one of her songs. She’s reluctant, but he insists. The audience, soon bored, return to their drinks, except for one haggard, drunken man, who pushes to the front of the crowd. Her song, about loneliness in the city, is emotionally raw, heartfelt, beautifully imperfect. Which is an apt description of Begin Again.

We return to this first scene a couple of times in writer-director John Carney’s musical drama. Keira Knightley is Gretta, an English singer who moved to New York with her incredibly successful boyfriend, only to go through a traumatic break up, about to buy a ticket back to Heathrow. Mark Ruffalo is Dan, an A & R man who’s failed to move on with the modern music biz, has been kicked out by his wife and his job, and is about to throw himself in front of a subway train. 

And then he hears Gretta sing, and everything changes.

Returning to the opening scene from Dan’s point of view, her lone, sad voice is suddenly joined by strings. The violin is playing itself, followed by the drums, and another instrument I’d probably misremember the name of. Dan is composing in his head, back in the zone, making art. The two are soon working together, but success doesn’t come easily.

And so begins a heartwarming story, and one constantly brimming with emotional energy, great sadness and great joy. Shunned by Dan's old label, he and Gretta record an album on the streets of New York; the film itself has a similar rebellious, indie feel, to the point that a lot of the dialogue, even large sections of scenes, are improvised. Luckily, Carney’s a real actors’ director and has a cast able to pull this off. 

Ruffalo, a master of charming naturalism, never fails to make Dan lovable, even with all his faults. Knightley’s less comfortable with the improvisation, as she's talked about in interviews, but in a weird way, this works for the character – a slightly uptight Brit out of her depth in a foreign world. And, while her singing voice is exquisite, she also excels in the non-verbal scenes; Gretta realises her boyfriend is cheating on her when she hears his new song, a  generic poppy effort, and somehow twigs that it’s about another girl. Without saying anything, we know her life has just collapsed, and it’s an exquisitely painful moment.

Meanwhile, as Gretta’s old university buddy, James Corden fits in perfectly, a natural comedian whose seemingly unrehearsed quips never fail to raise a smile. If you were horrified by Lesbian Vampire Killers, don’t be put off by the fact he’s in this. The supporting cast also features Hailee Steinfeld as Dan’s daughter – nice to see this very talented rising star again after True Grit – alongside Catherine Keener, Mos Def, and even a cameo from Cee Lo Green.

Begin Again has humour, heartbreak, and, above all, music. It’s one of the best films about the creative process I’ve seen. Cynics might say the film’s message about the power of independent music is too idealistic, but I say let yourself be taken in by the idealism, and let yourself fall in love with these characters. I did.

If I have one criticism to make, it’s this – for a film about how independent production will win out against big corporations, there’s an awful lot of product placement for Apple. Now, I know filmmaking is a business and it has to be done, so I don’t mind product placement, but, really, it’s so ridiculously noticeable – every single character has an iPhone and a MacBook, and Ruffalo can’t stumble drunkenly through the record label’s offices without bumping into at least five iMacs. 

Nevertheless, it’s the loveliest Apple advert I’ve ever seen. 


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