“The birds they sang at the break of day
Start again I heard them say
Don’t dwell on what has passed away
Or what is yet to be”
Cohen, Travers and Zafra
To be sure, Leonard Cohen’s “Anthem” (1992) is not part of the Begin Again soundtrack. Yet its core exhortation to begin again “at the break of day” was all I could think of after my wife and I caught the screening of Begin Again – an impressively-helmed film about what ensues when a struggling heartbroken singer-songwriter crosses paths with a down and out veteran record producer. Being passionate about music, I made a mental note to catch this movie the first time I laid eyes on the movie poster showing Keira Knightley’s character Greta conversing with Mark Ruffalo’s Dan as they’re nursing their cups of coffee against the backdrop of a sedan and a guitar case between them.
When I came across the two separate reviews by film critics we closely follow, my wife and I just had to watch it ahead of schedule.
Peter Travers of Rolling Stone Magazine opens his glowing review with “No disease. No teens dying. And yet Begin Again, from writer-director John Carney (the Irish dream-weaver of Once), hits the summer sweet spot by breezing in on waves of humor, heartache and ravishing romance. And irresistible music you can’t get out of your head.”
Back in her element after her recent health scare, Jessica Zafra observes that “Begin Again works, and we like how it skirts the corny fake-romantic turns that make movies of this sort so irritating…Rating: Recommended. It’s not often we hear melodies rather than explosions at the cinema these days.”
How To Begin Again
The movie kick starts with two of the main characters hitting rock bottom. Greta is betrayed by Dave, aptly portrayed by real-life rock star Adam Levine a month after he makes it big as a solo recording artist. The context of their five-year relationship and their songwriting partnership reminiscent of Buckingham-Nicks is what makes it doubly painful. Dan is fired from his job by the recording company he helped build even as he is reeling from his failures as a husband and a father after 18 years of marriage. Like a well-thought out record which you gradually get to love by listening to the melody of its tracks, mulling over its lyrics and reading the liner notes, this movie grows on you. Thanks largely to its engaging musical and dialogical vantage points. Vantage points that were carefully crafted for the viewer to understand and appreciate the descent to near despair of Greta and Dan and their individual and collective attempts to begin again despite the odds. The mostly acoustic introspective love songs collectively composed by Gregg Alexander, Danielle Brisebois, Nick Lashley, Rick Nowels, Nick Southwood, John Carney and Glen Hansard and gloriously channelled by Keira Knightley and Adam Levine are wonderfully complemented by the engaging dialogues written and directed by John Carney.
It is noteworthy that this movie does not oversimplify the process of bouncing back. The cliche about having nowhere else to go but up when you’re down may be true. Alas, it is easier said than done. Down there, despair and hopelessness offer themselves as the logical and at times, the ultimate option. Thus, Dan’s alcoholic downward spiral and Greta’s decision to give up on her dreams and go home to England. Until their paths cross that is. And this is where the movie takes an interesting turn. Thankfully, it does not let up until the closing credits. Cohen writes how “there is a crack in everything…that is how the light gets in.” The cracks in the lives of Greta and Dan eventually turn out to be opportunities for them to discover that they can indeed begin again. Their passion for their craft, their faith in each other’s abilities and their hope of creating an unconventional record minus the usual studio funding prove to be the light that gets through these cracks. Make no mistake about it though. There is no way they are able to pull this off without a little help from their friends who come to their aid when the going gets tough. There is Greta’s Steve (James Corden), a close friend and a fellow struggling musician and Dan’s Trouble Gum (CeeLo Green) who owe him his thriving recording career. Together these light-hearted friends and their innate capacity for humor as defiance make us understand why musicians and other members of the music community continue to fight the good fight even if material and commercial success continue to elude some of them. Together they call to mind a great line in another anthem by Jackson Browne entitled “Lights and Virtues.” “The pleasure of love and friendship, the courage to be alone.” It’s an apt line to describe how Greta and Dan are on their own and how they are, at the same time, part of a bigger community, make that a bigger family of like-minded souls who live for the music.
Three Compelling Add-Ons
Complementing the core message of the film are three elements which inescapably make this a memorable movie experience.
Keira Knightley’s Greta reminds me of the singer-songwriters I came to love when they first started – Suzanne Vega, Jewel, Sarah Mclachlan, Dido, Julia Fordham and Tracy Chapman. All heart and unadulterated talent. No put-on personas and absolutely zero makeovers. Indeed, the most enjoyable parts of the film for me are the ones where her character sings either solo or in a band. There’s her East Village singing debut of “A Step You Can’t Take Back” where Dan visualizes the great possibilities a proper arrangement can do to an otherwise sleepy acoustic number. And then there’s her raw rendition of “Lost Stars,” a song she penned as her Christmas gift to Levine’s Dave. Equally worth citing is her “Like a Fool” which recalls the post-breakup themes of Alanis Morisette and Taylor Swift. “Tell Me If You Wanna Go Home” would make a great carrier single. Her band’s rooftop jam reminds me of the festive atmosphere accompanying U2’s surprise rooftop performance in Rattle and Hum. Indeed, the scenes where she records with Dan and the band that he put together through his personal network are like MTV tracks that can stand on their own even as they seamlessly reinforce the plot of the film.
Yet another highlight worth citing is Dan’s keen observation of how music has a way of transforming seemingly banal aspects of life into profound life-changing moments. They then spontaneously proceed to prove his point by sharing their respective playlists using a “splitter” that allows them to hook up two headphones to one smartphone. Truly, songs you grow up with inevitably become the soundtrack of your life.
The movie seamlessly showcases the glamorous and not so elegant facets of New York City making it a part homage to the great city where poets, punks and poseurs fight for their dreams no matter what. After watching this film, it’s almost next to impossible to resist the idea of one day visiting this great city that never sleeps and checking out these sights for oneself.
All told, this is one rewarding movie viewing experience. Here’s hoping John Carney gets inspired by the raves this movie has been earning to release the full-length Greta album as a separate record and while he’s at it, the Greta sessions in Europe and in other parts of the US that Dan and Greta were conspiring about. In the meantime, let’s relish the great soundtrack to remember the movie by.