The record industry has been going through big changes for some time now. The advent of downloading tracks and albums has nearly obliterated the need for CDs and more traditional means of purchasing and listening to music. The established companies represent a means of distribution, marketing and selling a product like the generic pop singer so much so that trends and image often outweigh the music. That said, what better representative of the industry than a depressed, semi-alcoholic and deeply disillusioned record label executive?
“Begin Again” plays out very much as a companion piece to writer and director’s previous (and first) film, “Once”. It’s also a musical, it follows lower class and struggling artists, pushing the emphasis on music and emotional discovery, rather than actually making it in the industry. The main characters are Dan (Mark Ruffalo), the depressed record label executive, and Greta (Kiera Knightley), the heartbroken singer/songwriter. Both of them are reeling from emotional damage, Dan’s having built up over many years, leaving him estranged from his wife (Catherine Keener) and daughter (Hailee Steinfeld), while Greta’s is more fresh, having been abandoned by her shallow boyfriend Dave Kohl (played by Adam Levine), who is immediately swept away by the industry when his songs are featured and promoted in a successful movie.
After an outburst and being kicked out of his own company, Dan discovers Greta playing in a local open mic tavern and sees true potential. It’s a highly moving and cinematic sequence where, after having an all time low for a day, he is revitalized through her song. He stands alone in the crowd as the only person who hears her music for what it could be, imaging the accompanying instruments and arranging the song to bring out its true potential. From then on, their partnership involves recording a full album, entirely self-funded and performed out of studio, recording (often illegally) all over New York City. It’s a wonderful selling point for not only the love of music, but the city ambiance as well.
The original music (all actually sung by Keira Knightley) was written by Gregg Alexander of New Radicals fame (for those who remember ‘90s music), and it’s a fantastic collection of catchy, heartfelt songs that perfectly suit the damaged leads. It carries over from the performances to full montage, matching each scene beat for beat. They blend and flow so well that it carries every moment from one to the next, making it easy to get swept away by the melodies. Much like “Once”, I can see the soundtrack doing very well on its own, with “Lost Stars” and “Tell Me If You Wanna Go Home” as stand out tracks. To emphasis its place in the music world, there’s also a grab bag of celebrities featured, aside from Adam Levine, including Mos Def and CeeLo Green.
The heart of the move comes from the performances and the relationship of the two leads, Kiera Knightly and especially Mark Ruffalo. It’s impossible not to love the sweet Greta as she sings and struggles to find her way with Dan as her guide. His life is unstable and never seems to come together the way he wants it to. Even as disheartened with the industry and his life in general, he still finds his passion in the making and producing of good music. It’s also a testament to Mark Rufalo’s inherent likeability as even a shlubby, depressed alcoholic can still seem so endearing. He and Greta bond together in a way not entirely romantic, but with a deep emotional connection that seems to be what they both truly needed.
Enjoyable from start to finish, “Begin Again” is a movie about love, music, and New York City. It’s unapologetically upbeat, but pulls this off due to an honest sincerity.