Friday, August 1, 2014

Authenticity: Begin Again

Keira Knightley and Adam Levine in Begin Again

The title of the backstage musical Begin Again sets out its theme and hints at the narrative structure of the first act. The movie starts off in a Manhattan club on open mike night, where Gretta (Keira Knightley) sings one of her own tunes, “A Step You Can’t Take Back.” It’s impossible to take your eyes off Knightley, but her style is reluctant, self-effacing, and her untrained voice keeps sinking into a befogged, winey cavern; what fuels the performance is her feeling (mostly anger). Dan (Mark Ruffalo), a music producer, sits at the bar, getting plowed, but he’s struck by her song.

At this point the movie flashes back to the events that led Dan to that club. His life is in flamboyant disarray. He’s separated from his wife, Miriam (Catherine Keener), a music journalist, and though he loves their fourteen-year-old daughter Violet (Hailee Steinfeld), he’s too distracted by work to focus on her. It’s been years since he discovered any viable talent and the latest demos he’s received are hopeless. When Miriam, with a deadline to meet, asks him to collect Violet at school, he takes a few belts as he pulls up. Then he hauls her around with him: first to the office of his label, Distressed Records, where his partner Saul (Yasiin Bey, a.k.a. Mos Def, with a funny little fringe of beard) says he has to let him go and he makes a noisy, embarrassing scene, then to a bar where he and Violet have to run for it because he doesn’t have the cash to pay for his drinks. It’s another humiliation for him in front of his daughter – the bartender chases them down and punches him in the nose. When he winds up at the club alone, feeling sorry for himself and in search of more alcohol, once more we hear Gretta’s song, dedicated to “anyone who’s ever been alone in the city.” And as she sings, he envisions an arrangement that will showcase her more effectively, and the piano and cello sitting untended around her come to life.

It’s a good little number, but the audience is turned off by her inward, pissed-off attitude, so when Dan approaches her and tells her he wants to make records with her, he also comments on what’s wrong with her performance style. She argues that music should have authenticity and that it’s for the ears, not the eyes. Anyway, she’s not looking for a career in New York; she’s planning to return to England. Here the movie “begins again” and we see how she got to the city – with her singer-songwriter boy friend Dave (played by the singer Adam Levine), who came to record an album for a major label after the success of a movie for which he provided the soundtrack. (The ageless Rob Morrow, in an amusing, tossed-off cameo, plays the CEO.) But it doesn’t take long for him to succumb to the temptations of his big-deal new lifestyle. He cheats on Gretta and she walks out. Her best buddy Steve (the irresistible James Corden), who’s busking on the streets, takes her in and, to cheer her up, drags her to open mike night and makes her get up and perform.

Hailee Steinfeld and Mark Ruffalo in Begin Again
The writer-director, John Carney, was also responsible for Once, the 2006 charmer about the musical partnership and not-quite-romance of two young people in Dublin, and Begin Again obviously reflects the same sensibility. The narratives are similar: Dan comes up with the idea of recording an album all over New York, with pick-up musicians. So are the improvisatory feel and the bittersweet conclusion and the occasional whimsy of the musical scenes (when Dan’s imagination adds back-up to “A Step You Can’t Take Back,” we think of Markéta Irglová in Once listening to Glen Hansard’s “If You Want Me” on her iPod and supplying harmony in her head). Once is better; the script for Begin Again isn’t as fresh or as plausibly worked out, and though the songs are lovely, only one, “Lost Stars,” has the transporting effect of the Hansard-Irglová score of the earlier picture. (The main songwriters here are Gregg Alexander, Danielle Brisebois, Nick Lashley, Nick Southwood, and Carney himself.) And though Ruffalo is game, he isn’t loose enough for the material; he seems too familiar, too practiced, even a tad too pleased with himself. (He does improve in the second half.)

Still, for all its flaws, Begin Again is a deeply lovable movie. The musical sequences have a hand-made quality. Dan hires Steve to play lead guitar, a keyboardist who walks out on his job at a ballet school, brother-and-sister musicians on violin and cello, and a drummer and a bass player. The first time they go out on the street, to record “Coming Up Roses” (which Hansard co-wrote with Brisebois), Dan has to pay off some kids to stop playing ball because they’re screwing up the sound, and they end up singing back-up. Gretta, who makes an immediate connection with Violet, persuades Dan to let her try a little guitar on “Tell Me If You Wanna Go Home” and then gets Dan to play with her, and the results are joyous. (And it’s Ruffalo’s best moment.) Gretta releases her fury at Dave in a composition called “Like a Fool,” and Steve talks her into leaving it on his answering machine. And there’s a sweet montage where, using an old splitter of Dan’s, he and Gretta walk around the city at night listening together to a mix she’s put together of some of her favorite music, including Sinatra’s version of “Luck Be a Lady” and Stevie Wonder’s “For Once in My Life” and – the pièce de résistance, as far as she’s concerned – Dooley Wilson performing his signature song from Casablanca, “As Time Goes By.”

The magical element of the movie is Knightley, who embodies authenticity. She’s a miracle worker; she’s so relaxed that even the most trite part of the screenplay – the way Gretta helps Dan to rescue his relationship with his daughter – comes off. Steinfeld deserves some credit, though: she gets at the ways Violet is precocious and the ways she’s a needy kid without pressing too hard on either. And when, late in the film, Dan tells her he loves her, I love all the levels she reaches with her reply, “I know you do.” Keener’s performance starts off in that remote, chilly mode she falls into sometimes, but she melts as the movie goes on, and when Miriam and Dan share a cigarette during one of his visits, sneaking over toward the door so Violet won’t know her mom is smoking, you get a sense of how these two people interacted as a couple, of their playfulness. (This is one of those thrown-away details I love in John Carney movies. When Dan opts to go on the wagon, there’s no dialogue to tell us; we just notice that he’s not drinking alcohol when everyone else is.) Corden has a wonderful drunken interlude; he should be in more movies. It’s hard to imagine that anyone who’s seen him in The History Boys or Mike Leigh’s All or Nothing would disagree.

And Adam Levine’s performance is a nice surprise. Carney has some fun with Dave’s rock-star pretentiousness: first he sprouts a mustache, then we see him in an outlaw-style wool cap, and when he comes back into Gretta’s life, after she leaves the song on his voicemail, he’s decked out in a full beard that makes him look Amish. But when he listens to “Like a Fool,” he looks pretty guilty, and you appreciate the fact that Carney isn't just making him the bad guy. He calls Gretta and she agrees to meet him, and he plays her the version of “Lost Stars” – which they wrote together – that he recorded on the album, and it’s so glitzed up that she detests it. But he invites her to see his live show at a club, and this time he sings the song the way they originally intended it. It’s marvelous; he sings it with real brio, and you can hear in his voice all the feeling that must have made her fall in love with him in the first place. It’s scenes like this one that make it easy to forgive everything that’s wrong with Begin Again.

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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