Can a title kill a movie? Even assuming the answer to that question isn’t already an obvious ‘No’, we can’t know for sure as long as we’re refused access to the alternate reality in which John Carney’s latest is still titled Can a Song Save Your Life?. When it comes down to it, it’s the film audiences respond, not the packaging, but that title can certainly tint entering perceptions. If Begin Again fashions itself as a less worryingly imposing moniker, especially given the prior title’s loaded question, it still comes across as a fine physique wearing disposable, though not unsatisfactory, clothes.
That may be just as well for a film not fixated with keeping up appearances, and the shifting titles fit well onto a film that’s all about shifting perspective. One almost forgets that there are only five full original songs, as two of them play multiple times in their entirety, but without us feeling like we ought to be tired of listening to the same old tune. Just as no film means the same thing to different viewers, as Begin Again‘s biggest opponents and defenders will attest, no song is heard the same way each time. Take “A Step You Can’t Take Back”, the song that opens the film, introducing us to Gretta (Keira Knightley, rarely better in her peppiest, but also most emotionally acute performance to date), an English songwriter clearly reluctant to get on stage, but whose emotional investment in her music is clearly from her determined performance and slightly cracked vocalizations. We see it first as her song, and though we’ll get her back story later on, we learn all we need to know about her from this moment.
Fifteen minutes later we’re back to the same bar, the same song, but a different perspective: Dan (Mark Ruffalo, whose gruff unlikeability tapers off as his circumstances are revealed to be less and less predictable), whom we’ve already been introduced to as the doofus grinning wide at Gretta’s tepidly received performance. We view the song through Dan’s eyes, as the orchestral backdrop comes to magical life, recalling the fantastical whimsy of Claire Denis’ Friday Night. It looks different, but it also means something different. It shows Dan’s roots as a gravel-toothed producer in the music industry, sure, but it shows even more that Dan’s the type of guy who must desperately turn any tender, intimate experience into a grand emphatic statement. It’s not just who he is, but what he’s been through to drive him to this point of psychological desperation for an emotional catharsis.
This scene collides two people on the verge of ending the possibilities in their lives, and while the cynical end of that is never spoken, the dread of that potential step is palpable in Carney’s attentive, warm lensing of it. It doesn’t start out that way, though, as our tour through the most embarrassing day in Dan’s life shows less of Carney’s voice than that of its fairly unexpected producer, Judd Apatow. Dan’s rock-bottom refusal of emotional or professional availability is more of a turnoff when we’re trapped in the artless artificial environment of the record label that’s reached a pop-proficiency that no longer needs Dan’s outsider opinion of artists or the industry. “Maybe music should be free,” he says early on, placing him firmly on the side of art over profit.
If Gretta’s life hasn’t been actively demolished by the music industry, she’s most certainly an unfortunate bystander in its consumption of talent and transference of it into typicality. The former girlfriend of a rockstar who’s finally “arrived”, the destination wastes little time revealing itself as all glamor and zero sincerity. Nearly half the film is come and gone when we finally bring Gretta and Dan together, but they’re afforded a history that’s appropriately unsympathetic given the larger nature of the city they’re in. “Nobody leaves New York without something terrible happening,” Dan tells Gretta early on, ignorant to the fact that often New York is that something terrible.
Once that connection is made, though, the film concerns itself much less with stakes than it does with managing the relationships at hand, and how the musical choices emphasize those. As Gretta and Dan team up for an outdoor album recorded all across New York, the threat of their reliance on each other developing into a full blown romance is palpable, no more so than when the two share headphones and listen to classic hits of the past while immersed in an incomprehensibly loud night club, blaring boring dance music of the type that’s regularly churned out today, yet somehow rabidly consumed by the young crowd, nonetheless. The atmosphere in the room is enthusiastic, but whereas everyone else is jamming to a wordless, meaningless tune, Gretta and Dan are pulsating with the passionate spirit of Stevie Wonder.
So indeed, the film may be angling for a seemingly trite “music saved my life” message, but the feeling of submission to the emotional catharsis that music allows feels increasingly authentic. How it directs the relationships is also refreshing optimistic. Surprisingly, given the cynicism of its opening stretch, nobody leaves on bitter terms. If everyone begins again, so to speak, nobody does it in the same way, and they always maintain the fundamentals of where they started. Hailee Steinfeld’s character of Dan’s daughter is an especially visual example, starting out in high-waisted shorts and god-awfully tie-died, mid-riff exposing top. She’s his neglected daughter, but also a neglected child of the music industry he belongs to. She doesn’t end saying the sweetly encouraging “I love you, dad”, but there’s a glimmer of necessary reconciliation that doesn’t trivialize what damage still needs attention.
There are certainly some areas that deserve more of the same loving attention, namely Catherine Keener, who embeds both venom and charity into Dan’s wife, but whom we see too little of considering her ultimate importance in Dan’s life. Even as it requires some suspension of nitpicking, though, Begin Again charms frequently and deeply, often through song. Though there are maybe six full original track, the musical world still feels fleshed out, often by implication. Dan’s disposal of horrifically teen pandering, and mostly ill-suggesting demos offers a great deal of laughs for those sick of what’s polluting pop radio. Meanwhile certain characters get styled by their brief solos. We get enough suggestion of the opposite worlds rocker Dave Kohl (Adam Levine) and Gretta’s best bud Steve (James Corden) inhabit by their repeated lyrics, the former chanting “You’re so fine” to a crowd of screaming girls, while Steve thumps “Not alone” to… well, no one at all.
The fleshed out original songs are a real blessing of cheer and heartworn optimism, even humorously in the case of “Like a Fool”, Gretta’s peppy, yet fragile revenge tune against her rockstar ex. However, the film ends on more of a note of reconciliation – for both revived and terminal relationships – as we’re reintroduced to ballad “Lost Stars”, which has already played three times before (twice with delicateness, once as a soulless pop anthem), but becomes a summarizing statement for how songs endure emotion, even as some relationships whither them. Perhaps Lost Stars might have been an apt title for this reassuring story of the authentic and orchestrated worlds of music tumbling with one another.
Bottom Line: An optimistic little sister to Once, John Carney packs humble indie pop enthusiasm into the charming and nurturing Begin Again.