Review of Begin Again, Directed by John Carney
Like a movie about making a movie, Begin Again has a sort of postmodern, simulacra-tinged flavor. It uses the mask of celebrity to tell a story about being authentic, blending the “real” world of music with fiction by casting real-life music stars Adam Levine and CeeLo Green alongside Hollywood A-listers. This is ironic because Levine and Green are themselves products of the superficial, fake music industry that Begin Again critiques. The film is all about producing a genuine record, real music that flows purely from the creative impulse without regard to fame or sales or image or whatever. Yet the story is presented in the highly controlled medium of film and uses actors – people whose careers revolve around being someone than themselves.
The film begins with a chance encounter between a just-fired music producer (Mark Ruffalo) and just-dumped but absurdly talented singer-songwriter (Keira Knightley). Ruffalo’s character asserts in his pitch to her that all musicians stake their careers on carefully crafted, artificial images. She resists and – predictably – attempts to prove him otherwise. Yet contrary to what the film’s conclusion suggests, perhaps wearing a mask on stage is inevitable for anyone in the entertainment industry.
But let us put the philosophical musings aside. As the characters in Begin Again wrestle with how to exist in today’s rapidly evolving music industry, the film leaves us with a pearl of wisdom for all areas of life: The key to success may not be authenticity, but the key to happiness and friendship is. Indeed, we walk away with an unambiguous sense that one is far better off as a starving, true-to-self artist than the compromised, over-produced star with legions of adoring fans.
The film’s calling card is its cast, which brings the New York music scene to life. Mark Ruffalo can act – he’s top-notch at his craft and plays the fallen-from-grace loser in a profoundly likable way. Keira Knightley has pipes – she does the vocals for her part, and performs well-enough to convince me that a washed-up music producer would offer to sign her on the spot. And Adam Levine, for all his talent (which shines behind a microphone), is unconvincing as an actor – though in a strange way it almost works because he plays a superficial boyfriend enraptured by the fame of a big record deal. At some moments in the film, it’s hard to tell if he isn’t acting well, or if his character’s attempts to get Keira Knightley back are, in fact, terribly disingenuous.
Like the pieced-together album recorded throughout Begin Again by Knightley’s and Ruffalo’s characters, the film feels strung together and off-the-cuff in an endearing way. It features a soundtrack full of tunes that sound both hipster-indie and feel-good at the same time, showing us that music matters because it brings people together. The idea is cliché but true, and in this case it steers clear of the eye-rolling sappiness to which it is prone. When the music is playing it invigorates the spirit, says Ruffalo’s character, injecting everything we see with meaning and beauty. Even when our lives have gone to pot, when the melody plays, suddenly the world doesn’t seem quite as screwed up. For him, the song both takes him out of the world as an ugly, hostile place and illuminates its charms.
Indeed, the music of Begin Again makes the film shamelessly sentimental, and it mostly gets away with it. When the music plays, suddenly I’m okay with a group of random kids in the nearby alley coming in to sing backup vocals. I’m okay with a 14 year-old girl – whose music-savvy mom says isn’t good on the guitar – coming out to a recording session and killing it in an improvised solo as her estranged father accompanies on bass. Those situations aren’t realistic, of course, but when one’s spirit is caught up in song, the absurd beauty of happy endings suddenly feels imminent, hope rises, and life is beautiful.