Sunday, July 06, 2014

Begin Again

Fine, I'll see Once.

I missed it when it played theaters - I think it reached Boston the same week Fantasia started that year, it wasn't at the top of my catch-up list when I got back, because while music is a thing I like and use as background, I don't find it transcendent, so when people start pushing "the ____ power of music" for why I need to see something, my back gets up and I dig my heels in and I am just not interested.

The writer/director's Begin Again is probably on the same lines, but it's got a few actors I quite like, and the filmmakers approach the music in a much more interesting way to me: It's very important to the characters, but it doesn't have to be important to the audience, and there's enough about how they're going about making it to keep the process interesting. It didn't set off any of my triggers, at least.

And it makes for a pretty terrific summer movie. Sure, that often means loud and obnoxious, but in this case it means bright, laid-back, and sunny. There's drama, sure, but all those ads in which every scene seems to end with Keira Knightley laughing aren't that far off in how the movie makes one feel.

Begin Again

* * * * (out of four)
Seen 5 July 2014 in Coolidge Corner Theatre #2 (first-run, DCP)

I wonder if there's something about making a movie about popular music that puts filmmakers into a zone where they don't need to work in quite so straight a line - they're already thinking in terms of coming back to the chorus at one level, so they can do the same thing with the story. For example, one of the most impressively constructed and edited movies I saw last year was The Broken Circle Breakdown, and while Begin Again is roughly 180 degrees away from that emotionally - this is a spectacularly joyous movie - it shares that movie's willingness to forgo the straight line if that's what it takes to hit the right note.

For example, it starts with a friend dragging Gretta Jones (Keira Knightley) up on stage during an open mic night, and while most of the audience barely notices, one barfly stands up and applauds loudly. Then things jump back to the start of the day, showing how record company founder Dan (Mark Ruffalo) got there, via disastrous booze-addled visits with his teenage daughter (Hailee Steinfeld) and business partner Saul (Yasiin "Mos Def" Bey). She eventually agrees to work with Dan rather than fly home to Bristol, and along the way, she remembers her own path, from arriving in New York with her rising-star boyfriend Dave Kohl (Adam Levine) to the relationship falling apart while he's on tour.

That song at the bar serves as the chorus for the first section of the movie, and writer/director John Carney plays into that, making sure we hear it differently each time: Initially, it fights with crowd noise, while the second time through Dan and the audience hear the song as it could be, with other musicians backing Gretta but not overwhelming her. It's kind of brilliant how well Carney uses this structure - as much as that initial version reflects Gretta's current state of mind, it also sets the tone for Dan's final fall from grace, while Dan's ability to see Gretta's potential as a singer/songwriter is a great transition into seeing things from the optimistic young woman's perspective. It's also a slick way to show those of us who don't really know what a record producer does - and probably consider label executives and A&R men sort of parasitic given the way the industry has evolved in the digital age - why someone like Dan is actually still quite valuable.

Full review at EFC

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