Written by Ankit Ojha
What to Expect
Once upon a time, I watched an absolutely adorable little film called Once and fell in love with how sincere most – if not all – of it was. While the pace of the film was a major deterrent, and I didn’t appreciate how it tried to tick all the checkboxes of being a festival-circuit favorite, there were a lot of scenes which succinctly understood emotion, sans manipulation, between two characters without the prerequisite of any particular exchange of dialogue.
The return of its director Carney in a music-driven universe makes it apparent comparisons will be made to his much loved former effort. And rightly so, because the movie boasts of some of the most amazing performers in the form of Keira Knightley (Love Actually) and actor-director Mark Ruffalo (Sympathy for Delicious). Additionally James Corden makes a return to the universe of pure music after his performance as soprano success Paul Potts in the slightly bleak One Chance.
The people who’ve watched – and loved – Once will wonder if the movie in question – it’s called Begin Again by the way – reaches the heights set by the 2006 film.
What’s it About?
But that’s the thing about reaching heights: once you do, you lose focus of what you started out as. Uninterested founder of Distressed Records Dan Mulligan (Ruffalo) is told to let go by his business partner Saul (Yasiin Bey/Mos Def; Life of Crime), while Gretta (Knightley) has a painful breakup with boyfriend Dave (Adam Levine of Maroon 5). A chance encounter at a bar leads to an interesting experiment for an album, allowing Gretta to put her singing-songwriting abilities out in the open – albeit with a twist.
The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly
Carney weaves around the film a fairly simple and succinct storyline; but that’s the thing. It’s never necessarily a bad thing. Here, the simplistic storyline works brilliantly with the film because it receives Carney’s stellar direction. The characters of the film are supported by fairly fantastic writing and the decisions they make account for some of the most humane ones I’ve seen on screen. Dan is a fairly passionate individual, depressed and hurt with life, with sarcasm and alcohol being his entire support system. Is his character conventional? Yes. Can you see a person like him around you? Absolutely. This shows that Carney has won the battle. Gretta goes through the same phase of pain, and while both Dan and Gretta are at different phases of trying to get their grip on pain, there’s a quiet element of relating with the characters that is beautifully put through the film to us.
The film starts when Ruffalo and Knightley meet as her character sings the wonderfully emotive A Step You Can’t Take Back. Before you’re given a peak into Ruffalo’s oh-my-impulse-tells-me-this-clicks state of mind, there’s a rewind, allowing you to understand his character better. You’re brought to the beginning, with Ruffalo’s impulses kicking up over her performance, and after a banter, you’re taken back – this time to Knightley’s life. This kind of character insight makes most of the first half very non-linear – bringing us back to the scene thrice, and thereby giving us the chance to invest in the reason these two people should get together in some way or the other.
But believe you me, never for a second should you think that these are gimmicks. For there are characters that move about their lives as realistically as possible. Moments of pain are quiet, but manage to strike a chord, mainly because there’s no expository dialogue of any kind. The power lies in the scenes creating revelations without spelling it out for you. This, I particularly loved. I’d love to give you a couple of exemplifications to my claim, but on second thought, it would be better for you to experience it firsthand.
There are a lot of thematic elements that are covered brilliantly through music. Love and its associated pain through betrayal are given an emotive rendering in Knightley’s performance to Like a Fool, which by its end reaches a heart-tugging finale that even Corden’s character in the film is affected by. Lost Stars, written with the kind of passion it should have been, traverses through three versions, allowing us as an audience to see how pop-culture changes things for the worse.
Which brings me to why Carney must have made the film: most of it flips an absolutely assertive middle finger to the face of pop-culture and how it sometimes breaks the music industry, allowing cash-cow productions to race through the charts, ultimately obstructing some of the more talented independent singer-songwriters, pushing them into a fairly niche oblivion. Acts like Daughter and artists like Dustin Tebbutt and Sarah Jarosz are ignored in favor of pop-culture frenzies like 5 Seconds of Summer, Justin Bieber and One Direction, and the director – probably understanding that – gives us a fresh insight into the lives of artists, producers and songwriters whose lives intersect in the making of their passion versus the business that the production of mass-friendly pop culture music has become.
While Yaron Orbach’s cinematography of the movie is fairly pleasant, allowing natural light to take control more often in his choice of framing and scene setup, it’s the production design that impressed me. Raw, messed up places (fantastic art direction, by the way) give the film a homelier, realistic feel. Setting up the film around different spots in the city give the movie a very on-the-go, road-movie feel when it actually isn’t – and it’s the characters taking a more important, less literal journey in the process. The edit is consistent, but doesn’t account for much. There is a fair sense of continuity though – which a lot of editors fail to apply in transitions between scenes – that was noticed here, which is stellar. The music though, overpowers almost everything. In a film about music, the music in itself is a major character. Featuring tracks from the likes of Levine, the movie allows you to wonder about the lengths his singing can take his music if – for once – he chose to ignore Maroon 5’s stylistic trademarks in favor of a slightly more intimate set of songs. Knightley, who’s played a singer before in The Edge of Love, gets to showcase her raw, fairly passionate vocals yet again in this film – and for a person who hasn’t checked out her former film, this turned out to be a very pleasant surprise.
To Perform or Not to Perform
Mark Ruffalo pulls off the role like it’s his, but that’s not surprising. Many of you might know him as The Hulk, which is right, cause he does “smash” here with his performance. Although he’s done roles of a similar template before, there’s more than enough heart to win you over completely, first as a justifiably unlikeable person, and then as an evolving human being. It is, however, Keira Knightley who pitches in a brilliant performance as a normal hurting artist looking for redemption. To have played the classy, smart girl one-too-many in a modern setup, this was a fresh, slightly more intimate character – and she makes it her own. As a throwback to her slightly low-key character-sketch in Love Actually, this did make for a great follow-up in performance and choice of role. James Corden shows more heart and emotion in his character role than he was able to in One Chance, which is fantastic. His being an absolutely adorable person, you’d love to have someone like him hanging around in real life. Adam Levine performs wonderfully, and with conviction – which is a surprise (to me). Catherine Keener (Being John Malkovich) has a short role and isn’t intolerable to watch. Hailee Steinfeld (Ender’s Game) handles a fairly realistic teenage-daughter role well. The line between overdone-and-cliché and undercooked-and-cautious is very thin, and she’s been able to tread the line well enough. Mos Def is efficient as the business-friendly record-label co-founder, however, it’s CeeLo Green who pitches in a humorously heartfelt performance. Others are good.
Which leaves us with this very important question that some people won’t be able to help but ask: is it better than Once? That, dear readers, is for you to decide – as the tone of this film is way different from that in Carney’s 2006 effort. If you ask me though, I personally found it way better than the former, mainly because it doesn’t aim to be something – it just is what it is. And it’s this very relaxed, and yet intimately passionate filmmaking gig that won me all over.
But that’s the magic of this film: it wins you over so easily – without being easy, might I add – you wouldn’t even know.
Star Rating: 4.5 / 5