Irish director John Carney shatters all definitions of a musical. In his second film Begin Again, there is a moment of soaring elation that establishes he understands and feels music composition. The tipsy leading man Dan (Mark Ruffalo), co-owner of a record label who once spun fame and posterity for offbeat musical talents and is now in dire days of penury, is inside a bar. Just another night, except he catches on to a song being sung live.
It is a languorous song that says something about loss. The voice could be that of a British Joni Mitchell. Dan begins to orchestrate the composition in his head; he sees the musical instruments lying unused in the bar’s makeshift stage—a set of drums, a piano and a violin—come alive and play on their own. The end of the song dashes the fantasy, but Dan has found a mission—he will make Gretta (Keira Knightly) a star; it helps that to both of them, Randy Newman is a hero.
Carney’s last film, Once (2006), was a delightfully rugged musical set in a dour and low-lit Dublin. A busker (Glen Hansard) who plays his songs outside a mall meets a Czech immigrant flower girl (Markéta Irglová) with a sonorous voice.
Their songs and a shared working class ennui galvanize a soulful but doomed love affair. It was a quiet film, with great songs to remember. YouTube Falling Slowly by Glen Hansard now if you haven’t. Begin Again has a budget. And its setting is New York. It is a flashier and more mainstream film with the same theme: music saves lives, uplifts mourners. In following a largely Hollywood romcom formula, Carney ends up using some convenient twists in the plot.
An oddly puritanical attitude of the dishevelled and otherwise amoral Dan towards his teenage daughter is a jarring touch, unnecessary to the story. Music-making and creating a hit album is just a matter of gathering a bunch of untapped talents together and getting a few thousand clicks. Everything works out all too easily for this duo—Gretta, who travels to New York with her once soulmate and now a famous sold-out singer, and Dan, living in a poky apartment after his wife (Catherine Keener) asked him to leave home. They decide to make an album recording at New York streets, a guerilla enterprise that could end in a climactic trunaround.
The actual romance has parallel tracks, but that does not matter because ultimately the greatest romantic fix in the film is a night Dan and Gretta spend roaming around Manhattan streets, simultaneously listening to the same music through a set of connected headphones.
For a music fanatic, this is an equivalent of the Na’vi tail embrace. For a casual music lover like me, this is a reminder of the high of shared song. Ruffalo’s character is downbeat as well as imperious, and he balances both strains effortlessly. Knightly is superb as the plain, good-natured woman, holding on to the idea that a musician ought to make music only for herself.
Keener is as entertaining to watch as she is in all her films (forgive the bias, she is one of my favourite actresses ever), Adam Levine decently pulls off Gretta’s estranged, confused boyfriend and James Corden plays the part with most comic possibilities as Gretta’s buddy for all occasions. The writing has some awkward turns. Some dialogues and scenes stretch the sugary all-is-well credo too far, which do not stop Begin Again from being an immensely enjoyable musical. The original music by Gregg Alexander is intoxicating Mitchellian graft.
BY HARSHVARDHAN SINGH.
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