If it looks like an Oscar, walks like an Oscar, and quacks like an Oscar, then it must be an Oscar! Finally, we have a movie that could be destined for a nomination from the Academy for Oscar 2015. Prepare to be dazzled by the performances of Mark Ruffalo and Kiera Knightley in this “summer sweet spot.” It’s been a long time since there has been a backstage musical that essentially comments on the present state of entertainment. And, this is the first one, in recent times, that comments on the music production industry from the inside out. This is a movie, not only for music artists, but any independent artist out there who seeks to keep the art of music, theatre, film or narrative television pure. Consequently, it’s also a showcase of self-publishing artists via iTunes (and the equivalent). Watch, and be moved from your very seat as the music truly comes to life, and watch as a realistic portrait of the creative process is majestically painted before your eyes.
The latest film from writer-director John Carney (ONCE), Begin Again is a soul-stirring comedy about what happens when lost souls meet and make beautiful music together. Gretta (Knightley) and her long-time boyfriend Dave (Adam Levine) are college sweethearts and songwriting partners who decamp for New York when he lands a deal with a major label. But the trappings of his new-found fame soon tempt Dave to stray, and a reeling, lovelorn Gretta is left on her own. Her world takes a turn for the better when Dan (Ruffalo), a disgraced record-label exec, stumbles upon her performing on an East Village stage and is immediately captivated by her raw talent. From this chance encounter emerges an enchanting portrait of a mutually transformative collaboration, set to the soundtrack of a summer in New York City.
One of the most interesting elements missing–but not needed, mind you–is the romantic relationship between Dan and Gretta. The whole time, the audience is left wondering if a romance will blossom between the songbird and the producer; and, just like a good suspense movie preps the audience for what “may” happen and keep the audience on the edge of their seats in anticipation, this movie does just that–but with romance and not suspense. For once, it is refreshing to see two people in many compromising situations and never cross that line. Although not specified in the ending, in all likelihood his relationship between his [presumably] ex-wife and daughter mends over time. And, Gretta is left to find a new love in her life–and that may mean going back with Dave. It’s a romantic comedy, of sorts, without the sex–though there is plenty of alcohol. The relationship between Gretta and Dan truly works for this movie, and I am glad it was not turned into a cliche love story, as it so easily could have.
Begin Again is aptly named; and an understanding of the origination of the title can be witnessed within the first few minutes of the movie, as it recounts the day’s journey that led Dan to the East Village open-mic nights where he meets Gretta and has musical visions of turning her simple song into a masterpiece. It’s also a symbolic title because both Gretta and Dan have to “go back to start…do not collect $200,” in a manner of speaking. Gretta leaves her rising star boyfriend after he admits, through a song, to cheating on Gretta; and, Dan has the chance to start is professional life over after rising to the top of the music recording industry, winning two Grammys, and falling down to having to bum alcohol off people at the bar. There are many different metaphors of “beginning again,” and I think it is up to the viewer to decide with which story he or she most identifies.
It was very refreshing to see a new backstage musical. If you are unfamiliar with the term, a backstage musical is one that essentially takes place mostly “off stage,” but the musical numbers and dialog comment on the state of the “art” within question in the movie or stage show. In Singin’ in the Rain, the story took place mostly off camera but commented on the transition from silent films to talkies. In A Chorus Line, the musical takes place mostly off the main stage but comments on the struggles of being an actor. And in Begin Again, it takes place in the allies of New York City, bars, ghetto-rigged recording studios; but all the while, the focus is on getting the music to the masses and being an authentic musician in an era of overly produced, machined up, cranked out songs. Throughout the movie, Gretta–reluctant to follow a producer’s advice at first–keeps her focus on the music and not the fame. Her aim is to be a true artist and use her music to inspire people despite the pressures of a capitalistic music production system. Even when faced with a decision of fame over art, she chooses art.
Just when the summer blockbuster season seemed anemic, here comes a movie that is inspirational, funny, and quirky in an era when fame is almost always prized above the purpose of the art. Ars Gratia Artis (art for art’s sake) is the Latin phrase adorning Leo the Lion in MGM’s timeless logo, and is essentially what this movie-musical is about. Art is for everyone, not just the privileged few. And, always remember to stay true to yourself–true to the art, and not get lost in the bright lights, golden trophies, and assembly line music that seems to be ever present today. If you have a chance to watch this movie, you will thoroughly enjoy your time.