Math and emotion perfectly unite in process of musical production. The left and right brain are crucial partners in music making; they intertwine, they dance. A musical genius knows enough math to determine when to drop a beat or draw out a cadence. If you know the structure, you know how to play with it for maximum emotional effect.
The relationship between math and cinema is a little more difficult to determine. Even though mainstream cinema arose with the help of traditional music composition, the basic pleasure of the cinematic image seems to be either more erratic or more simplistic than a song. Even Russian formalists––insistent as they were on decisive, rhythmic editing––drew on cinema’s capacity to capture utter chaos and simple-shot simplicity (consider the famous Odessa Steps scene in Battleship Potemkin: we get the helter-skelter crowds and the simple, heartbreaking close-ups.)
We use music to structure our lives, but in the theater we submit ourselves to the structure or chaos or simplicity of cinema. Film has the capacity to simulate everyday disorder and keep us glued to our seats anyway. Begin Again thrives at the curious place where the artistic qualities of cinema and music converge – their stylistic differences refract, converge, and refract again.
At first, we meet Gretta (Kiera Knightley), a bubbly, expressive British thirty-something who just lost her Falsetto Crooner boyfriend Dave (Maroon 5’s Adam Levine) to his ravenous fan base and a crop of dense, manicured facial hair. As New York City kicks her to the curb, Gretta meets a fellow failure in Dan (Mark Ruffalo). Ruffalo belongs to the Marlon Brando/James Dean tradition of inward-turned-outward performances; every new performance is subtly altered from some deep place, and, in this case, Ruffalo’s modulation gives Dan a sweet-yet-down-and-dirty alcoholic vibe. He has lost his wife, his daughter, and his record label. As he drinks himself into oblivion, he stops by a bar. Gretta is playing a song “for anyone who’s ever been alone in the city.” He immediately decides to sign her, or at least try to sign her.
As you might expect, music is the medicine in Begin Again. Gretta and Dan create a live-recorded album on the streets of New York. The production structures their volatile lives and allows them to express their dissatisfaction by creating beauty. They bond by listening to guilty pleasure songs on their respective iPods with the help of a symbolic headphone splitter. The whole thing isn’t a lot deeper than a Coke commercial, but it is a little bit. The movie touches on interesting questions: What is music for? Simple, mass pleasure and unity, as Dave would have it, or intimacy between two people that––because of its simple authenticity––reaches others as a mere byproduct? Is there a happy medium between these extremes? What is the difference between being produced and being overproduced? Begin Again doesn’t have answers, but it doesn’t require them. These questions lead to interesting, character-centric conversations, and those stay appropriately front-and-center.
Critics have called the music mediocre and those complaints aren’t unfounded. Carney’s earlier film, Once, worked because of involvement of The Swell Season. Without them, this musical film suffers. But Dan seems to be right about Gretta’s potential; Knightley’s tone isn’t quite as velvety as Norah Jones, as strident as Alanis Morissette, or as delicate as Regina Spector, but it embodies a nice balance of characteristics exemplified by all three musicians. With some vocal work, she could really be something. That said, it’s disappointing that we never see a true vocal or musical transformation. After a while, hearing several “professional musicians” describe her music as “great” threatens to upend our suspension of disbelief––before we’re pulled back to earth by the sweet, ginger quality of the film’s one-on-one conversations.
Begin Again doesn’t utilize the power of cinematic minimalism or cinematic chaos, but it is a fine example of the (admittedly reductive) philosophy that a good film is like a good song. Like a well-crafted pop hit, Begin Again is calculated, mathematical and formulaic, but only in its attempts to achieve genuinely emotional moments. And, to Carney’s credit, he throws certain overproduced clichés out the window, particularly during the sensitive, well-calibrated ending (before the credits, not after). Carney wants to have it both ways: produced and raw, or, rather, produced in the pursuit of rawness. He does a decent, if imperfect, job. The production feels a little saccharine, but it’s sweetened by pure cane sugar instead of the synthetic, artificial yuck that flavors so many romantic comedies. And while Begin Again might not completely satiate your cinematic palate, it’s certainly worth consuming.
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