Music can change the world because it can change people. Because people suck.
by Thom Yee
Ask any artist, any real artist, about what they do, why they do it, or who they think they are, and you’ll probably either get an intentionally pithy, almost rehearsed and ultimately empty answer or some vague construct built equally on furtive musings and deliberate concealment. More often than not, artists don’t know who they are or what they’re doing, and least of all what they want, and if they do, it’s usually more as the result of what others have said about them than any genuine self-reflection.
In general, I think it’s a falsehood for anyone seeking true self-expression to really know what’s going on, and the best most artists can ever hope for is to access and then continue finding that space where the images, notes and words just keep flowing like a force from on high, barely conscious of the material bursting forth, as they try to record, shape, and ultimately contain it all.
For instance, I don’t know why I said all of the preceding, it’s just what I was contemplating while thinking about Begin Again, and I think it mostly started from half-remembering something Vin Diesel said in the first Fast and the Furious, definitely not two movies I would wilfully compare or contrast.
The people we meet in Begin Again all find themselves at some point on that line of artistic self-expression, most towards the less established and rehearsed, with those further along the line turning out to be not only more successful, but also self-destructive a**holes. Whether that’s a natural symptom or necessary evil of success would often be a question at the centre of many movies, but Begin Again really isn’t a movie that requires all that much thought.
Gretta (Keira Knightley), a young and fiercely independent songwriter, is the girlfriend and sometimes collaborative partner of Dan Kohl (Adam Levine), a musician and soon-to-be star. After the two move to New York to pursue his burgeoning career, Dave has an affair with one of his producers, causing the two to break up. Dan, a once successful record producer, is now a record executive struggling to find an act to promote. Divorced from his wife, estranged from his daughter and living in a hotel, Dan is eventually fired after alienating everyone at his agency. On Gretta’s planned last night in New York, Dan sees her perform one of her songs at a bar and instantly wants to produce a record with her.
One thing from that synopsis that might stand out to you is the name Adam Levine. Just so we’re clear, yes, it’s that Adam Levine:
I don’t know what it is about a lot of musicians transitioning to acting, other than the obvious performance aspect, but one huge positive in the movie is that I was never once reminded of or distracted by the fact that yes, it is that Adam Levine:
Almost equally surprising is Keira Knightley’s singing, which is not only pretty good, but much better than most actresses trying to go the other direction (remember when Lindsay Lohan had an album?).
Begin Again, is pretty obviously trying to say something about art and honest self expression, deconstructing the traditional production process, eschewing traditional recording studios for emotionally resonant outdoor spaces throughout New York and using unconventionally sourced backup musicians from wherever they can find them. One scene calls for a musician to quit his job as a kids’ ballet pianist for an unpaid chance to record on the album, something real, and the way he does it immediately and without any need for conscious thought speaks to the desperational hope inherent in everyone who wants to create but has yet to be seen or heard.
But that’s about as far as Begin Again ever really goes in terms of deeper meaning. It’s a movie with a stellar cast (I’ve always loved Mark Ruffalo, even if he still won’t apologize for the whole tar sands thing) and full of potential, but it still hews strongly to the conventional. It invites itself to soulful moments and symbolic gestures (like the headphone splitter hanging from his Dan’s rearview mirror, which I immediately recognized for what it would ultimately be used for), but it’s never really doing anything challenging. That’s probably also the thing that keeps the movie from feeling too ingenuine.
You can interpret Begin Again in a few different ways, the most analytical of which is probably as an indictment of the music industry as it stands today, particularly in opposition to what many “pure artists” see music as. I’m not really going to make any arguments in one direction or the other, both because I don’t feel qualified to make them and because they seem relatively self-evident. What I will say is that growing up in the ‘90s has given me and most everyone from my generation an acute sense of f*ck you to a lot of our established economies, particularly towards the music industry, and that everything financially bad that’s happened to that sector feels deserved.
Beginning with its own inner darkness, it’s obvious that Dan’s at the end of his rope, before meeting Gretta (he literally tells us that he was basically drinking himself to death that night), and it’s easy to see the movie for the redemptive arc it represents, but following that through to its core kind of exposes Begin Again for the manic-pixie-dream-girl piece it’s not sure it wants to be. Knightley’s Gretta, though initially more resistant than the MPDG character type usually allows for, winds up being that eminently available and absolutely desirable female creature who fixes everything before neither rejoining or rejecting her former love. In this case, she’s allowed to have a backstory of her own, but she’s still never really called on to change or grow throughout the film.
Like a lot of movies set in New York City, Begin Again is as much a movie about the city as it is any of its more overt themes. It effectively combines that sense of “only in New York” attitude with the obviously provocative and emotionally resonant nature of music to make itself seem bigger than it is, and all of that comes together in a way that embiggens the whole thing beyond its plot.
At once gratifying and alienating, Begin Again fluctuates between faith and despair before arriving at an ending that suggests hope without drowning in it. Most everything in the movie winds up being resolved in a way that might seem too good to be true, but is also kind of realistic in as far as what’s possible if the parties involved were all actually working towards a happy ending. Unlike last week’s Chef, which almost betrays its plot and its audience, a similar ending in this movie feels much more earned, partially because the whole thing feels more grounded in reality, but mostly because music is such an easy vehicle into hearts and minds. It’s at that realization that I understood what a manipulative movie Begin Again is, but even admitting that I would also have to admit that it winds up being a movie I wanted to be manipulated by.
Begin Again final score: 7.5
On the Edge
- The MPDG label has been called reductive and misogynistic by critics, to which I would like to respond that most labels by their nature are reductive, so don’t think that exposing this one for its misogyny is anything more than what’s obvious in the label’s use of the word “girl”.
- Keep your eyes peeled for James Corden, taking over for Craig Ferguson as the new Late Late Show host. Whoever those people are. Whatever that show is.