Begin Again is a film about music, featuring Keira Knightley and Mark Ruffalo, is written and directed by John Carney, and is technically an independent film. Everything about that appeals to me. There’s no way Begin Again would not have been one of my favourite films ever.
Greta is a songwriter who’s hit rock bottom after her relationship with Dave (Adam Levine) goes south, and Dan is a music producer who’s been down on his luck for a couple of years. Circumstances enable them to find each other, and they decide to make an outdoor album together, celebrating New York City.
That’s it without spoilers. Here’s your spoiler warning. You have been warned.
It’s no secret that a lot of people do not like this movie, but the fact is that I don’t care.
Begin Again is that one John Carney film that isn’t universally beloved, and it’s the least independent of his films. One could argue that it loses some of that Carney flair in the process, but it really doesn’t. It’s actually rather nice that it’s still there despite it being so much bigger than his first film, Once.
Mark Ruffalo and Keira Knightley have brilliant chemistry in the film, and that’s really essential. It was never questionable that they’d be good, but the way they play off each other and are able to connect so much on screen says something about the actors. This is a film that’s much smaller than both are used to, but that doesn’t take away from the marvel of their performances.
It’s smart that the film isn’t exactly chronologically told, because we first see both characters at their lowest points. Greta has just found out that her boyfriend cheated on her, and Dan’s professional and personal life is in ruins.
The way Dan is introduced really makes him seem like a terrible person, from his outbursts to his apparent hatred of all music to his alcoholism. But this is, again, smart, because for the rest of the film, we see him become better.
This introduction particularly aids what I think is one of the best scenes in film history. I’m not taking that back.
Dan walks into a bar at the end of a bad day, and sees Greta singing on stage. We already see her do this at the start of the film, but this time, we see it as Dan does, with all the instruments in the background playing themselves in Dan’s head, and making the song a lot better. Everybody in the bar isn’t pleased, but Dan sees something special.
Having this come right after he’s been seen as nothing but bad really helps this aspect of his character shine. It’s the first good we see in him.
Something Begin Again does well is have a commentary on the current state of music, and all its problems. Dan sees all the music he receives as generic, his company wants nothing but revenue and is willing to produce generic music to make money. Greta questions the idea of how a musician should look, because music is about “ears and not eyes”. She also refuses to sell her album to Dan’s company because she makes one dollar for every nine the company makes.
However, what the film also does is highlight the real magic of music too. Throughout the film, it’s used as a catalyst to bring people together, to add colour to life and to express what cannot be said in words.
This overview of music is something that elevates Begin Again, because what it’s saying is true. The film isn’t just a beautiful story unfolding. It’s relevant.
Despite all this, however, the crowning jewel of Begin Again is something I took a long, long time to notice, and it’s the fact that its entire story can be told by its music.
As someone who regularly listens to this film’s soundtrack, I do love its music, but, in the context of the film, there is actually more than meets the eye.
Chronologically, the sequence in which Greta writes all her songs actually reflect the current state of the character, and can tell the whole story of the film on their own (if you can interpret the songs as such, of course).
The first song that Greta writes in the film (not the first song in the film. The first song she chronologically writes) is titled Lost Stars, and is a song about wandering, being young, being lost and wanting to be noticed. It is, essentially, about Greta.
What’s funny is that in the scene, even when the song is clearly about Greta, Dave, her boyfriend at the time, says ‘It’s about me, right?’. That, right there, is why Greta wrote the song in the first place.
Following Greta’s discovery that Dave cheated on her, she goes to New York to meet her best friend Steve (played by James Corden, who is nothing but a delight in this film) before flying back home to the UK. This is when the opening scene takes place, and the song Greta sings on stage, A Step You Can’t Take Back, is just dark. If you actually pay attention to the lyrics – “Here comes the train/Upon the tracks/And there goes the pain/It cuts to black” – they’re suicidal.
Ultimately, it seems like Dan saves her from drowning in the deep end, and as they begin their journey of recording their album, the songs Greta writes are a little more hopeful.
The music, lyric-less, for Tell Me If You Wanna Go Home play next, indicating that Greta wrote this song before the rest, and it’s a song about uncertainty and taking leaps of faith, which is exactly what Greta is doing by agreeing to work with Dan.
The first song they record is Coming Up Roses, and this is an even more positive song, about change and making things better for yourself. It’s apparent that, psychologically, Greta is getting better.
Now, what appears to be an upward slope abruptly drops when Greta watches an award acceptance speech that her ex-boyfriend Dave delivers, and once again, she plummets back down, writing Like a Fool specifically for Dave. Despite its upbeat rhythm, it’s still a sad song. And it’s essential to Greta finding closure with Dave.
Finally, the last song that’s recorded is Tell Me If You Wanna Go Home, this time with the lyrics, and just before they begin recording, Dave calls Greta and asks to meet up.
Once again, the song is about uncertainty, but this time, the focus is on the idea of leaving your past in the past, which is what Greta is trying to do with Dave.
After this, everyone is elated that they are done, except Greta, because recording the album is what made her escape her troubles with Dave. She agrees to meet Dave, and she learns that he’s stolen Lost Stars and recorded it in a ‘radio’ style. This is when she finally snaps, because she’s reminded of what she really is to Dave, and how easily he’s willing to overlook her for himself. Despite this, he still asks her to come to his show that night, and she goes.
It’s interesting that this is the song that closes out the movie, because there is so much meaning to it. First, Dave actually sings the song how Greta intended it to be, and it’s visible on Greta’s face that this makes her happy. However, when Dave sees that he’s done his job in making her smile, he immediately reverts to his version of the song, and Greta leaves in tears.
As she rides away on her bicycle, it looks like she’s finally, really moved on, because by letting go of Lost Stars, a song from her past about her insecurities, she appears to have literally let go of her insecurities, and is looking up at a promising future. This indeed may be the case, as she immediately goes to publish her music online for only a dollar for the whole album, and proposes to Dan that they make more albums.
Begin Again is, in my opinion, despite many disagreeing with me, a beautiful film, that tells its story two ways. It’s about music, but also about so much more, and uses its music in a unique way. I’ve watched it five times, but I know there’s no cap on that number.
It isn’t, in any way, the greatest film ever. I just love it.