Begin Again (2013)

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Seems Like Old Times, Redux

Begin Again, John Carney’s follow-up to his stunning independent film musical, Once (2006), opens with Rashomon precision. We see a down-on-his-luck musician, Steve (James Corden) coax his reluctant friend, Gretta (Keira Knightley) onto the stage at a small bar. She timidly plays acoustic guitar and sings an innocuous complaint rock ballad to which almost no one in the audience listens. It’s not quite Annie Hall’s debut, in which waitresses loudly break dishes while she murders “Seems Like Old Times,” but more on that later.

We watch Begin Again’s opening scene three times, once from Steve’s point of view, but most importantly from the perspective of a drunk at the bar. Earlier that day, we see Dan (Mark Ruffalo), the drunk, a down-on-his-luck record executive who gets fired from the independent label he began years ago, now run by Saul (Yasiin Bey, the erstwhile Mos Def). Dan is estranged from his music critic wife, Miriam (Catherine Keener) and his teenaged daughter, Violet (Hailee Steinfeld).

Dan is lured away from the bar by something only he hears, not Gretta’s song so much as the orchestration of it he invents while standing in the middle of the club. Carney’s camera cuts from an objective shot of Dan to his subjective view of the stage. At first, a cymbal on the drum begins to beat, oddly since when we first heard Gretta singing, there was no such accompaniment. As more and more instruments begin to play (piano, then cello), it becomes clear that Dan is creating a great rock song in his mind. Carney presents this as a whimsical fantasy, with the magical film image depicting a bow creating music without a visible human hand to guide it across the cello strings.

This is the allegorical key to Begin Again, a film that is, if it is even possible, better than Once. In fact, Carney’s new project seems a displacement of his earlier film. Gretta is fleeing the commercial rise of her cad boyfriend, Dave (played by real life rock star Adam Levine), while Dan bristles at his partner’s embrace of social media and other marketing nonsense. They combine this rejection of commerce by recording an entire album of songs on the streets of New York City. In so doing, the characters replicate Carney’s production of Once, which he shot run-and-gun style with digital cameras on the streets of Dublin almost a decade ago.

But it is the divorce of sound and image, those which in classical Hollywood convention are tightly wedded, that gives the film its thematic resonance. And here, Woody Allen lies close at hand. While driving between renegade recording sessions, Gretta asks Dan about the cables hanging from his car’s rear-view mirror. He explains that it is the headphone splitter he and his wife used on their first date, walking around New York City listening to music together. Dan and Gretta use the device to get to know each other, connecting their phones to the device so the other can hear their “guilty pleasures.” The songs Carney presents, drowning out the ambient sound of the city, are certainly pleasurable, but far from guilt inducing. They speak the language of cinema. First, we hear Frank Sinatra’s “Luck Be a Lady,” from Guys and Dolls (1955), and last, the crescendo, Hoagie Carmichael’s “As Time Goes By” from Casablanca (1942). After this montage reverie, Dan and Gretta sit on the street. Dan theorizes the film’s project, explaining that even the most mundane street events (we see a homeless man being arrested by the police) become transcendent with the right musical accompaniment.

Dan’s observation is a rebus for popular Hollywood cinema. Two intertexts are key in this register. First, New York City was cinematically transformed by the classical Hollywood musical itself. That Sinatra begins the sequence in Begin Again points to On the Town (1949), in which Gene Kelly and his sailor friends sing and dance around the city. That film in turn points to Stanley Donen’s masterwork of music and New York City, It’s Always Fair Weather (1955), a nostalgic reconstruction of the magic of the earlier film, also about soldiers on the town, but now a decade later. In the New Hollywood period, of course, came Woody Allen, whose films present the most Romantic vision of New York City since Walt Whitman. The use of George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” in Manhattan (1979) did far more than the “I Love New York” advertising campaign to rescue a decaying cesspool of a city.

Begin Again is a love song not only to New York City, but to the cinema itself. Carney offers a vision of how to make art within a seemingly inescapable commercial stranglehold. His film may have moments of idealized Romanticism—its plot rescues all of the characters from their misery a bit too easily—but its heart is in the right place. In the film’s best scene, the unctuous Dave tries to make amends for his horrid treatment of Gretta by taking his over-produced hit version of a song that she wrote, and stripping it back down to her preferred acoustic guitar frame. However, in the middle, his fans’ love of the commercial version takes him over, and he reverts to stadium rock hero. Gretta sheds a tear, and turns away. It is a blessing that we too can turn from Hercules playing in the next movie theatre over, and find that which nourishes the soul, an artist at the top of his form, slaying the only dragons that matter, those which obscure our humanity from our vision.

– Walter Metz