Music and movies have frequently gone together. While cinema loves a good musical, often musicians have tried to make the move to the silver screen, and cinematic stories themselves have tried to capture the life of a musician through works of fiction or Oscar-calibre biopics. For Music in the Movies, Set the Tape will explore musical biopics, the mixed successes of attempts to make musicians movie stars, and tales that revel in the wonder of music and lyrics.
It was always going to be hard to top Once. Its low-fi nature, ability to capture love and longing through song, and having been filmed with digital cameras almost guerilla-style, gave it an intimate and tender feel. For his follow-up foray into the world of musical creation, John Carney went all Hollywood and yet it still resolutely feels like a film to have come from the same creative force as the 2006 Irish wonder.
While Carney would once again return to his Irish roots, while still retaining a more cinematic flourish, with Sing Street, Begin Again is a brilliant indication of what happens when you give a great filmmaker who made his name with a low budget production more to play with. Brilliantly, he doesn’t lose sight of the wonders of music or a sense of the intimate that characterised to perfection his breakthrough film. The difference here is that the lead characters, Gretta and Dan, are played by Keira Knightley and Mark Ruffalo, and since this is a Hollywood film dealing with music made in the 21st century, we have to deal with James Cordon too, although admittedly this was before he developed the habit of showing up everywhere.
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The art of creation is a term that comes up time and time again on Music in the Movies; so many films with a musical theme and centred on musicians love to detail the creation of music and songs. And yet the way Carney captures Ruffalo’s character seeing an invisible orchestra playing instruments, as he works out a song in his head, and how it should go, is perhaps the best example of the art of creation that this sub-genre of film has given us. It hints at a sense of magical realism that is just hanging over the periphery of so much of Begin Again that makes it a none more John Carney concoction. This is essentially the film that takes the Once director to the world of the big leagues, and yet he never for one minute feels like he’s selling out, even if the film is dressed up with an A-list cast.
By their own accounts, Knightley and Carney didn’t get on. So much so that upon the release of Sing Street Carney talked at length in various interviews about how much he enjoyed not ‘working with supermodels again’; a disparaging observation given that Knightley had become one of the UK’s best actresses with her work in the likes of Pride and Prejudice, Atonement and Never Let Me Go. Very much part of the influx of young British talent making their mark in both their home and in Hollywood productions, it wasn’t uncommon to see Knightley in something like this or a Pirates of the Caribbean film, while at the same time wowing audiences with complex work in her collaborations with Joe Wright, not least a brilliantly modern approach to the period dressings of Elizabeth Bennet in 2007’s Jane Austen adaptation.
For all the talk of Knightley and her director not getting on here, the results never for one minute show on the screen. While she did have to get singing lessons to play Gretta, her performance here is another amongst a filmography of brilliant work over the last fifteen years. By Carney’s own admission, she wasn’t his first choice, with both Scarlett Johannson and singing superstar Adele earlier considerations, and while Knightley might have had to put the work in so as to acquire the brilliant singing voice she displays here (it goes without saying that the soundtrack is one of the best of the 2010s), the songs are cathartically delivered, but never to the extent that it shies away from the non-musical moments.
Don’t be fooled by the poster, as Begin Again is not a romantic comedy-drama starring Knightley and Ruffalo. The central pairing is platonic throughout most of the film, with maybe a longing glance here or there, but they are characters finding solace in their love of music while dealing with complex relationships at home, and the film never takes the easy way with the development of their partnership. Dan’s marriage is estranged, his relationship with his daughter even more so; while Gretta is contending with a broken relationship with her ex-boyfriend Dave (Maroon 5 lead singer Adam Levine) who has cheated on her, while also achieving fame as a successful musician, but only by selling out his music in favour of commercial success.
Like Once, Begin Again is positively in love with the very art of music and songwriting, and the emotional wonders that can come with it, while also questioning how one should utilise the success that might follow. Gretta and Dan make their album, but they put aside making millions off it in favour of selling it online for a single dollar; a final rejection of easily attained commercial success in favour of enjoying the artistic endeavour, the complete opposite of what Dave might have done, who would rather have an adoring crowd to hang on to and the mainstream sound to make millions from as opposed to anything approaching artistic success.
It’s an intriguing notion for the film to take given that this is Carney’s ‘Hollywood’ film, the one revelling in an A-list cast, a New York setting, and slicker photography and production values. That it manages to do all that and yet still feels truly part of its director’s filmography makes it a lovely wonder and another high benchmark for Carney himself. But we’d have to wait for him to go back to Ireland to deliver his true masterpiece.