Self-doubting and self-effacing singer-songwriter Gretta (Keira Knightley standing at the mic center) leads her makeshift band in a guerrilla recording session on a Manhattan rooftop while her self-appointed and previously self-destructive manager and producer Dan Mulligan (Mark Ruffalo on bass second from right) joins in in John Carney’s romantic comedy Begin Again.
The first shot of Mark Ruffalo in Begin Again is one of the most frightening images of a movie star I’ve ever seen. It’s horrifying and repulsive but irresistible and riveting in the way human wreckage often is.
We’re in a bar. New York City. Somewhere in the Village. Ruffalo---his character, whoever he is---is obviously drunk. And this isn’t that kind of bar. The clientele aren’t here to drink. They’re here to listen. And talk. It’s an open-mic night. We know how those go. But it isn’t just that he’s drunk that marks him as out of place. He’s alone, for one thing. He’s middle-aged for another. Most of the crowd that we can see are in their twenties. He’s a worn-down, beaten-down fortysomething. And he’s a mess. Uncombed, unshaven, probably unwashed. Rumpled head to toe to a degree that says he’s not just had a hard night but a hard year. Or two. Or three. Actually, we find out later, seven. But what really let’s us know he’s an outsider here is that he’s listening to the music.
Like I said, we know how open-mic nights go. The singer songwriter alone on stage with her guitar is struggling to hold the lackadaisically friendly crowd’s drifting attention and losing the struggle. Her problem is she can’t belt it out over the noise of a dozen conversations. She doesn’t have the confidence, in her voice, in her playing, in her song, which she wrote, in herself. We know this about her because we’ve already met her. She doesn’t want to be up there. She had to be practically pushed up onto the stage. But this guy is all attention.
He stands there, his bleary eyes wide-open and as round as pie plates, his scruffy cheeks stretched by a grin of maniacal idiocy.
If she could see him past the spotlights she’d be terrified.
If we didn’t know and thought this was a different kind of movie we’d be worried for her.
But then the story jumps back in time to that morning and we begin to follow him through his awful and increasingly self-destructive day---since he’s been on a downward slide for a while he doesn’t have much of a self left to destruct, what we’re watching is him at the his rope with his grip beginning to slip---and we see him throw away what’s left of his career, further alienate his already alienated teenage daughter, show us why his marriage failed, and wander aimlessly at last into this bar, bringing us right back to where we met him, presenting us with the same image as we began with, only now we know what’s causing that awful grin.
It’s not mania.
It’s not idiocy, it’s bliss.
And now that we know what’s behind it, it’s not awful anymore.
I’ll have to go back and rewatch when it comes out on DVD to see if Ruffalo and director John Carney are playing games here and they shot the scene over making subtle changes or if they’re being clever in another way, knowing that context is everything and our now knowing that context or thinking we know it will change our perceptions. Either way, it’s a neat trick.
The guy is listening. Intently. Sympathetically. Appreciatively. But not just to what’s on stage. He’s also hearing what could be up there. And we get to listen with him. And we know what he knows. She’s good. She could be a lot better. She will be a lot better, if he has anything to do with it, because we know something else now too, he’s good at what he does too. Well, was good. But he will be good again. He’s grinning like he is because he knows that. He hears it. He’s listening to the sound of his redemption.
Hers too, as it turns out.
I’m going to stop here for some liner notes on spoiler alerts.
I try very hard not to give too much away in movie reviews. Some things I just don’t mention or at least I don’t go into detail mentioning. Surprise twists, endings, important characters’ ultimate fates, visual and technical effects that are better seen than read about. But some things can’t be written about without giving away plot points and those things are often what’s good (or bad) about a movie and the reason I liked it (or didn’t) and think you would (like it or not like it) too. And that’s the case with Begin Again. I haven’t been able to think of how talk about everything that’s good about it (and there’s a lot) without giving things away. This is especially true of Kiera Knightley’s character and her performance, which are the heart of the movie.
So you might want to stop reading here because, you know, spoilers.
Ruffalo plays Dan Mulligan---golfers will get the joke in his last name---a record producer, once one of the most successful indie producers in the business. He had a gift for discovering and nurturing new talent. He heard things others missed. But it’s been a long time since he’s had a success. Probably because he’s been listening with only half an inner ear for years, as he’s been paying more attention to the noises made by his self-pity. His now ex-wife broke his heart and he let that break his spirit. But without warning, he’s finally heard something promising again. Knightley.
Knightley plays Gretta, the diffident and reluctant singer songwriter, and after Ruffalo introduces himself and makes his pitch to take her under his wing and guide her to stardom, the story jumps back in time again, and we follow her path to this bar, which began several months before, mostly happy months for her, well, apparently happy, although today’s been a very bad day, and we learn how she got here.
She was dragged by her best friend, another singer songwriter, who hoped it would distract her from her grief over her break-up with her boyfriend, yet another singer-songwriter, although a much more successful one. In fact, he’s just had his big break and is on his way to a level of stardom even higher than the one Mulligan’s promising Gretta.
This is the sob story we might expect we’re being set up for. There’s an note of self-destructiveness in Gretta too.
She wasn’t being overshadowed by her boyfriend’s talent. She was hiding her own behind it. And we see that she was in the process of using his success as an excuse to erase all trace of herself as a musician, an artist, and even a person in her own right.
Reluctantly, doubtfully, but with a burst of determination brought on by anger that surprises her, and after Googling him to make sure he’s not just the drunken, maniacal idiot he appears to be, Gretta accepts Dan’s offer and he gets right to work the next day.
He takes her to see his former partner Saul (played with a soft-spoken wariness by Mos Def, again appearing under his real Yasiin Bey). That doesn’t work out. Saul can’t hear what Dan hears and he no longer trusts Dan’s ear.
Without money to rent a studio, Dan gets the idea to record Gretta wherever they can find a space to set up. On the street if they have to. The idea carries them away. They’ll do it on the street, in an alley, on a rooftop, on a subway platform, in the rowboats on the lake in Central Park, under the arch in Washington Square Park. They’ll record her live and work into the final mix whatever background noise the mics pick up. The voices of the city will sing harmony. The music of its streets, parks, and subways will provide backup. The album will be a musical portrait of New York!
It’s a crazy idea, but it just might work!
Of course it does work. We know it will work. We’re told flat out it’s going to work when Gretta mentions a Judy Garland movie. Not Wizard of Oz and not A Star Is Born. One of her “Let’s Put on a Show!” movies of the kind she routinely did with Mickey Rooney. Begin Again is that kind of movie.
With a happy ending practically guaranteed, the suspense is in how that happy ending will come about and in discovering exactly what happy will mean for Gretta and Dan.
Director John Carney, who also wrote the script, uses what we know based on the conventions of romantic comedies is going to happen to set up expectations in order to surprise us by not meeting those expectations or meeting them in eccentric and roundabout ways.
Example: Convention sets up to expect that Gretta’s the real talent and her ex-boyfriend, Dave Kohl, a flash in the pan, a one-hit wonder, if not a downright phony. She is talented. But he’s a star. Not just a major talent, either. An artist. One who knows how to incorporate his audience and their expectations into his performances. He doesn’t manipulate them or play up to them (or down to them). He works with them. His art, his music, is collaborative in more than the usual way. Gretta doesn’t learn she’s as good as him, never mind better. She simply learns she’s an artist in her own way and that she has responsibilities to herself because of that, which, by the way, doesn’t exempt her from responsibilities to her other people.
One of those people is Kohl. Another is Dan.
This is how it goes throughout. We know what’s going to happen and then it turns out we didn’t know or didn’t quite know it. Characters get some of what they want, more of what they need, it just turns out, as the writer George V. Higgins said about how happy endings turn often turn out in life, it just doesn’t look like what they expected. Or what we expected for them.
We know Gretta and Dan will get their album made. We know it’ll be a success. We know Gretta will blossom as an artist. We know Dan will sober up and get his act together. We know Dan and his daughter Violet will work things out and we know know Gretta will be the agent (angel) of their reconciliation. We know Dan and Gretta’s partnership will turn into friendship which will turn into…
…a conflict with something else we know, which is that Dan and his ex-wife Miriam will start making moves towards getting back together.
Dan and Gretta and Dan and Miriam both can’t end happily!
We know we’re supposed to root for Gretta but we can’t help rooting for Miriam too, especially since she’s played by Catherine Keener whose career practically exists for directors who need someone immediately sympathetic and whom we root for even she’s in the wrong, as Miriam is and isn’t here.
This conflict of rooting interests makes us lose track of what we really should be rooting for. That’s a good thing, in case I’m not being clear.
This is the first time I’ve seen Knightley play an ordinary human being coping with ordinary problems. She’s in love, but it’s not a grand romance. She’s torn between two men, but her dilemma’s not even potentially tragic. And there are no pirates.
By ordinary I mean a type we could run into any and every day, have run into many times, in my case, a not all that rare breed of young artiste with talent and intelligence and without ego and vanity whose only ambition is to be able to do what she does well the way she wants to do it. Gretta is not a star in the making or in her own head. Which isn’t to say she’s fine with the way she is. Her problem is she’s too accepting of what she’s let herself become, which is a little too ordinary. Knightley conveys this with the way she slouches inside her dowdy outfits of shapeless gingham dresses and baggy tops worn over torn jeans with flat-soled sandals and slip-ons. This is someone who hit on a style in college and has stuck with it because it’s easy and because it accomplishes what she needs it to, make her not quite invisible but easy to overlook.
But there’s something about the angularity of her carriage---she’s all elbows and knees---and the set of her face that tells us that what we know from movie conventions, that she’ll clean up nice, won’t have the effect those conventions might be leading us to expect. Dress her up, pin her hair back, hand her a lipstick and she’ll turn out to be…not Keira Knightley. She’ll still be Gretta, an ordinarily attractive young woman who’s learned a few style tips that don’t really matter to her.
What matters to her is her songwriting and her music. To convey that, Knightley had to learn how to sing and play the guitar. I can’t tell you if how well she learned to play. Her fingers look to be doing the right things but who knows how things got fixed up in the sound studio. Same with her singing, but it sounds to me as if the sound engineers left her voice sounding as close to natural as they could, and that leaves her sounding like what she is, someone who can sing well enough to please a crowd in a club or in a small hall and even sell albums but who’s really singing to the stars who she hopes will cover her songs to give them an idea of how they should sing them.
Knightley’s best talent as an actress is her knowing how to employ that great, wonderful, screen-eating smile of hers. In Anna Karenina part of the horror was in watching that smile grow brittle and then desperate and then fade. In Begin Again, it doesn’t exactly do the opposite, it doesn’t need to return because it’s not gone away. But it takes time for it to regain its full force and for Gretta to let go and stop shutting it down whenever she feels it beaming on too long.
But there’s a whole lot more happening on her face besides the smile. Gretta, secure in her belief that she’s almost never the focus of anyone’s attention, feels free to let every thing she feels and thinks show.
Here’s one of those spoilers. In a scene late in the movie, Gretta goes to see Dave perform in concert for the first time since their break up and his rise to stardom. He wants her to take him back, as we knew from the first he would, and she’s exacted a promise from him, as a test of whether or not he deserves it, to perform one of the songs they wrote together her preferred way despite his fans’ love of his arrangement. And at first he seems to be passing the test. All at once, though, he gives in to the wishes of the crowd who want to sing and dance along to the song as they know it.
And the succession of expressions that cross her face---melting adoration, at first, then shock as he switches from doing the song her way to his, then hurt, then anger, then sardonic amusement, then realization, then acceptance, then understanding, appreciation, and a new but unromantic affection---is a delight.
My favorite of these expressive moments, though, occurs when she and Dan are on the subway listening to the songs on his playlist on his smart phone. All at once she surprises him and herself by shimmying her shoulders to the music. It’s sexy and Knightley shows us that Gretta knows it’s sexy and is enjoying feeling sexy but then can’t continue to enjoy it because she’s enjoying something else, laughing at herself over it all. And there’s that smile.
Ruffalo plays Dan as somewhat the opposite of the wayward brother he played in You Can Count on Me. In that movie his character was someone you knew you couldn’t count on who managed to charm you into counting on him anyway. In Begin Again, Dan is someone you feel you ought to be able to count on but is determined to prove you’d be wrong to do it.
In You Can Count On Me, he had to be charming enough that we understood why people counted on him despite themselves. In Begin Again, he has to be charming enough that we can see why the very few people who still count on him aren’t out of their minds but not so charming we forget why everybody else thinks they know better.
Ruffolo makes Dan a battered, ragged, popped-seamed, stuffing-leaking, buttons-missing teddy bear of a man, the kind of teddy bear who appears not worth repairing but you keep around for sentimentality’s sake. Dan puts himself back together stitch by stitch but the fun of it is that we don’t actually see the mending. Ruffalo just has Dan looking and acting a little bit better each time he reappears. With each new scene we think “Something’s different” and then Ruffalo makes us have to look for what that is.
As Dan’s half-heartedly rebellious teenage daughter, Violet, Hailee Steinfeld, who earned an Academy Award nomination playing Mattie Ross in the Coen Brothers’ True Grit, shows she wasn’t herself a one-hit wonder. She’s clearly working on growing as an actress and like Gretta doesn’t seem to be concerned with stardom but with being good at what she does and continuing to do it. Her character is more than conventional, it’s a cliche, but her performance is marked by interesting and intelligent touches that mark Violet as herself and Steinfeld as what she’s said she wants to be in the future, a writer and director.
As Miriam, Dan’s exasperated ex-wife and Violet’s worried mother, Keener does what she does best, evince the world-weary resignedness of an intelligent, resourceful, and once happier woman who has some of the stuffing knocked out of by life but has mostly gotten over it and long since decided she’s not going to choose between hope and despair and just deal with things as they come.
Rap star CeLo Green plays a big-hearted angel of a rap star named Troublegum, one of Dan’s discoveries from way back when who has not forgotten all he owes him and to whom it doesn’t matter whether or not Dan can be counted on anymore. He simply loves Dan for the good he did him and believes that when you love someone you are always looking out for them. Rob Morrow shows up for a brief but wicked cameo as a music company executive in yellow-tinted glasses whose seductive smile and jovial declarations of love for anyone who amuses him (and promises to make him money) lets us know he’s the devil. Bey---Mos Def---plays another kind of devil, an underminer and a planter and exploiter of doubt.
As Dave Kohl, Maroon 5’s Adam Levine acts at least as well as he sings, convincing off the stage as on playing a basically decent guy who’s being a jerk and is tempted to become an even bigger jerk but who isn’t at heart a jerk and doesn’t want to be one. And as Gretta’s best friend Steve, a fellow singer and songwriter, James Corden is cast as the type of open-hearted, eager to please nice guy convention lets us know has a secret sorrow and is destined for heartbreak he’ll suffer with puppy dog eyes and a mournful smile of acceptance that he then doesn’t play. Doesn’t have to play. Steve is a happy guy having fun being what he is a young artist in New York lucky enough to be able to do what he likes to do and that makes Corden’s scenes some of the most fun scenes in the movie.
Final verse. Along with everything else, Begin Again is what Gretta’s album is meant to be, a loving portrait of New York City set to music. And while I can say that the portrait of New York is recognizable and loveable, I don’t have Dan’s ear and can’t tell you if the music is truly good. What I can tell you is that I liked it and all the songs Gretta is supposed to have written sound like they could have been written by her. And that’s probably as important because, when the show’s over and the band’s packed up and left the stage, Begin Again is Gretta’s story, the story of a music industry Cinderella who becomes her own fairy godmother and fairy godmother to others, and it’s her music that gives her the strength and the ability to do it.
Begin Again, written and directed by John Carney. Starring Mark Ruffalo, Keira Knightley, Adam Levine, Hailee Steinfeld, Catherine Keener, James Corden, Yasiin Bey, CeLo Green, and Rob Morrow. Rated R. Now in theaters.
Spoiler by way of an encore: The spoiling here isn’t just in the scenes from the movie, the song lyrics are giveaways too, so watch at your own discretion.