Our Favourite Films: Begin Again

begin again indexJohn Carney reminds us that we need to ‘breathe’ and take a moment to get our bearings

Before rewatching snippets of ‘Once’, I would have said that the previous effort of John Carney isn’t as fun. But there was a moment during said rewatch when I remembered what would happen next as the shifty fellow (who is later revealed to be Anton, someone Guy knows) started to tie his his shoes while Guy was playing. Since Dublin (where ‘Once’ was filmed) is known for pickpockets, this wasn’t really an amusing occurrence rather than painful. It doesn’t happen right away though, as Guy warns Anton not to go ahead. Maybe it’s because Gretta (Keira Knightley) gets introduced first before Dan that parallels aren’t easily drawn up between the two films.

If you’ve (like me) assumed that this one was made right after ‘Once’, you’re not alone. I get corrected after looking through his filmography, as it tells a different story. There’s a comedy called ‘Zonad’ and horror film ‘The Rafters’, neither which I had seen. I’m reminded by what Gabriel Öberg shared about how there is a regular misconception of the amount of work it takes to create a piece of music. Which makes me think about all the things that have to align (like Keira being open to doing this kind of story) and if one of them fell apart, who knows how it might have ended up.

Both films open in a similar way: an acoustic guitar being strummed. In ‘Once’ Glen Hansard’s Guy pours his heart out to passers by and in this film, while Gretta sees herself more of someone who writes the music and not a performer. So there’s a bit of an addition in which her friend Steve gets the reluctant singer up on the stage. Then there’s the difference on the approach to casting. The leads in ‘Once’ were cast as musicians first…and actors later while ‘Begin Again’ looks for the best actors who can pull off playing a musical instrument.

Another commonality is both Gretta and Markéta Irglová’s Girl nudge Dan and Guy into action. Girl incessantly questions Guy about his songs soon after she approaches him during a quiet moment and Gretta is more of the kind of person who waits for an opportunity. One example is her showing Dan the benefits of being kinder in interacting with his daughter, Violet (Hailee Steinfeld) than his usual ‘you must do this’ approach. In turn, Dan gives Gretta a glimpse of the possibility of her life as a performer.

The Setup: A record producer circles the toilet and sees the potential in a songwriter’s work while going through one of the lowest points of his professional and personal life. It’s interesting how much I probably projected into Dan because it’s Mark Ruffalo is playing him. There wasn’t a worry at all that he wouldn’t get through whatever he was suffering from. I think that’s a testament to the consistent tone that is achieved throughout the film and Mark just easily coming across as this really open, likeable guy.

The Inciting Incidents: Dan’s spirals further down after losing his job while Gretta is reeling from Dave (Adam Levine) cheating on her. In a way, what we’re probably seeing is a story that might have not happened. I know I’m fond of pondering on alternate universes (parallel worlds), and when Gretta’s point of view is shown (not just that she was reluctant to get onto the stage, but also to stay in rather than tag along with Steve) it plays like there was a minuscule chance that she would say yes (because she’s on a roll lashing out).

It’s one of the films that have a really strong teaser and opening credits. At first I thought the whole rehashing what had happened in different perspectives would be tiring, but it isn’t at all. Then there’s the second track (if you consider Gretta’s performance as the first) from The Walls called ‘Drowning Pool‘. Having not heard the lyrics (or what it is about), I got the impression that it was sort of a triumphant kind of song, more like a contrast to Dan’s frustration. This wouldn’t be the kind of song I’d usually embrace, but every time I watch the film, I find myself nodding my head when the opening riff starts. It’ll be different now though, as I know there is quite a lot of anger in the song.

I actually considered what it would be like if Dan were introduced first before Greta and the three initial chapters (Gretta, Dan, and when they cross paths) wouldn’t work so well. Plus that reveal of Dan with a goofy smile after Gretta debuts her creation publicly wouldn’t have that same enigmatic effect. Though it could probably come across as creepy to some who haven’t seen Mark Ruffalo’s comedies. Did ‘Once’ also shoot this way? Maybe there were just points in the film. The whole ‘time shuffle’ approach is a big component in this one as I realised that it also plays a big role in the ‘recruiting musicians’ montage. We are introduced to the complete band and bit by bit we get snippets of how they ended up with the group. Time is moving forward then back and I’m not sure specifically what it does to the narrative aside from keeping the viewers on their toes.

Though he’s not my choice for MVP, I was quite surprised by Adam’s performance as he didn’t stick out (keeping in mind that he’s sharing scenes with a really strong actor like Keira). Laggies was Keira being floppy and exploring more of her physical comedy skills. This one lets Mark run amok with his own brand of physical comedy (also in display in ‘Suddenly 30’) which was quite delightful. Given those strong performances, I’d like to give it to James Corden. Which brings me to the fact that I’m actually quite confused when I hear about viewers focusing on him as the cause of ruining their viewing experience.

My biggest surprise is finding out that Judd Apatow is credited as one of the producers. It shouldn’t be as I was reminded there was a part (40-60%) of his stand-up special (‘The Return’) that I really enjoyed (which I think surprised me). There’s also ‘Juliet, Naked’ with Chris O’Dowd, Rose Byrne, and Ethan Hawke which he is also listed as a producer. Is it the more earnest part of him that contributes to those films? Or maybe is there something we audiences have yet to discover about him? I have yet to find out. What I do have the answer is Judd became involved because John pitched him the film.

Comedic Moments:

  • Dan’s frustration while in the process of listening to demos in his car

  • Dan thinking that he was able to out run the bartender.

  • Gretta making an observation about the kind of man Dan looks like

  • Dan getting Gretta to consider that a purr might be a cat’s way of ‘booing’ someone

  • Steve’s dance challenge

  • The band scrambling to get all their equipment while in the process of recording at a subway platform.

  • The kids trying to get a better deal from Dan

  • Dan wisely keeping his distance while Gretta talks to Violet about her clothes

What I like best about the film is that it lets it characters ‘breathe’ and take a moment to get their bearings, rather than be carried away with what society expects from them (or what they think the people close to them expect). It is shown in Act 2 (since the events of the story are laid out in a non-linear way the midpoint is close to the beginning of the film) when Gretta tells Dan that she isn’t really waiting to be discovered. It’s only until she spends more time with the producer that she realises that they have a strong connection.

Disappointments? Maybe I’ll go with how Dan and Gretta’s connection was handled outside of them working on music. I would have wanted something that didn’t go beyond friendship (since it’s a business connection, and there’s also the issue that Dan and Miriam, played by Catherine Keener, aren’t officially divorced) and adequate boundaries set to remind the younger generation that dictating the terms early on, helps in reminding the kind of expectations to ensure that nothing unwelcome happens. So, I feel like there could be a scene before they head to Steve’s apartment explaining why they are headed there (though quite late at that point — it would have been great to have witnessed that discussion or at least how they would have handled the conversation). It did do a good job about consent though during a scene when Dan was about to pull Gretta into the pool and instead of pressuring her to jump in he just pivots and gives the excuse to Troublegum (CeeLo Green) that her reluctance is due to her being English.

One of the new things I’ve been doing while putting together reviews is to listen to available viewer commentary. I know there are ‘reaction videos’ and I think the ones that are found as podcast episodes are more fit for me (though I would like to find those who do written commentary when watching their favourite shows and films). One of those commentaries mention unjust criticism and resulted in John Carney apologising to Keira Knightley. There’s also the possibility that Adele Adkins could have played Gretta. Which is quite fascinating to me as I was thinking about how to describe Keira’s singing voice (that Keira has a different kind of voice compared to Adele).

Oddly, I don’t think that the film sides with either Gretta (independent route) or Dave (mainstream route) as Troublegum isn’t put in a negative light at all. It was just a bit tricky during Act 1 when Dan tells Saul (Yasiin Bey aka Mos Def) that commentary on an album is a bad idea. I mean, it’s a bit like adding more liner notes or following the lead of films (I’ve yet to come across a streaming service that include audio commentaries to titles) and there’s the issue of Dan probably not in his right mind (which might be another great example of a person possibly experiencing a specific kind of perspective as outlined by ‘Myopia Theory‘, which I also mentioned that Kat likely went through in ‘The Wedding Date‘, which Malcolm Gladwell mentions during a chat with Oprah Winfrey)

With musicals of this type (and not the ‘La La Land’ kind), it does depend on the taste of the viewer, while some would not be keen on Keira’s singing range (closer to Lisa Loeb than Adele Adkins) I probably would lean more towards Nicholas Brandi’s view (“unguarded”) on a lot of her performances. What’s more is another surprise that Gregg Alexander was actually behind my favourite (and probably all the others too right?) song specifically written for the film.

If you’re being hounded by close friends about not having watched this or ‘Once’. It’s quite an easy choice: Are you spurred to action by sadness and pain or laughter and playfulness? I know it’s a bit unfair, only letting you choose between two things. The thing is, you’re still reading because a part of you is searching for something. That something that maybe either film can put to words. Because there’s a third commonality between the two, and in a sense, it doesn’t matter what you choose as they both share the message: you never know who is listening when you pour out your heart and just get your work out there.

I think this one is going to end up in my masterpiece list (8/10). The biggest reason is probably those opening minutes. The promise is made (a light comedy) and fulfilled. With films looking to add a twist to make them more marketable, I quite like the ones who just say: this is what it is going to be…and this is what I’ll give you. The promise (probably from the posters and DVD covers) is so strong that it took me a rewatch to notice how dark Dan was feeling (he tells Gretta that he was going to jump in front of the train).

The film is probably going to occupy a special place in my heart for awhile. Even if I’m not an arranger (I might be able to ‘fake it enough’ and definitely know that it’s not my strongest area) like Dan. Though if you’re looking to get an idea what its like for a composer, that teaser is a good place to start. Maybe it might even pull you in enough to finish the whole thing.

Leigh Lim.
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