Begin Again

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Expectation is a tricky thing to manage. Take the case of Spider-Man 3 and The Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer which both came out in the Summer of 2007. Spider-Man was undoubtedly the better movie but I enjoyed Fantastic Four more because my expectations were lower. Similarly, this year I went to see Godzilla with really high hopes because director Gareth Edwards previous film, Monsters, had been so superb but as it turns out I thought it was terrible. I’m sure I hated it far more than it deserved, I’d just wanted it to be so much more.

Sometimes a film can meet sky high expectations, as with Avengers and The Dark Knight Rises, but more often than not great anticipation can ruin a film.

Begin Again had the odds stacked against it then. Writer/director John Carney’s previous film Once was a thing of true wonder. Certainly that flick was never going to suffer from overly high hopes, coming as it did from absolutely nowhere. No stars, no budget and released with no fanfare, Once was a beautiful movie about a guy and a girl meeting on the streets of Dublin and connecting over a shared love of music. The performances were brilliant, the songs were brilliant, the direction was unfussy but brilliant.

Now eight years later, Once is a much respected indie gem and the basis for a hugely successful Broadway and West End musical. It’s fair to say I was excited to see what Carney had for us second time around. Here we are with his follow up, different guy, different girl, different streets of a different city, different music, very similar plot. I tried not to want too much from it, but as I said; its tricky.

Fortunately I loved it.

It does follow very similar beats to its predecessor. Mark Ruffalo is a washed up record producer, Keira Knightley is a heartbroken singer/songwriter, music driven by passion not profit is their mantra, New York their stage. You can see where it’s going to some extent but actually the film avoids cliché at almost every turn. It almost feels like a sequel to Once in the same way Teen Wolf Too was a sequel to Teen Wolf, different cast, same basic set up (they should have called it Once More) and I’m sure Carney won’t get away with playing this tune for much longer but it is working for him for now.

Thematically it is also similar to John Favreau’s Chef, a disenchanted artist finds redemption by stripping everything down and hitting the streets, but it feels no more a retread of that than anything else. In fact Begin Again manages to still feel quite fresh, surrounded as it is in the multiplexes by superheroes, monsters, robots, teen dramas, dystopian sci-fi, triumph over adversity biopics and crude comedies.

Keira Knightley and Mark Ruffalo are both excellent and play very believable characters. Certainly, there are events in the film that might have come across as unrealistic or trite in the hands of other people but these two actors and their director manage them well. After all, people do have arguments, reconcile, meet new friends, get discovered and sing songs in real life too. I think the point at which Knightley’s Gretta realises her relationship with her rock star boyfriend is coming apart is particularly well played.

There are some nice performances from the supporting cast too, notably Hailee Steinfeld and James Cordan, one playing a kid and one playing a man-child but really the film is more than the sum of its parts. There are great tunes, an interesting non-linear narrative, good actors and an engaging story but it all just comes together in a wonderful feel good movie. I may have been overly harsh to Godzilla and its possible I’m being overly generous here but I thought it was wonderful.

Is this one for the kids?

I would say exactly the same about this film as I said about Chef last week. The film is rated 15 for strong language and sex references but there is no nudity or violence. I would say it is fine for any teenager if you know they’ll be okay with a little bit of bad language.

Is this one for the music lovers?

As with Inside Llewyn Davis earlier in the year and of course like Once, music plays a huge role in the film. The tunes may not be as raw as they were in Carney’s previous film but they are very catchy and Keira Knightley has a good voice. Several of the songs are repeated with different production values as the story dictates but the new versions add nicely without being repetitious.

The soundtrack album features these tunes and ‘music inspired by the film’ and it actually all works nicely together. Adam Levine of Maroon 5 features heavily on the disc as he does in the movie and there are some good songs from fellow cast member Ceelo Green. Nothing from Mos Def though even though he’s in the cast too. I guess that’s the wrong sort of sound. It is only £6.99 on download which isn’t quite as cheap as the ethos of the film dictates but it’s a bit of a bargain nonetheless.

The Ripley Factor:

This is a great film for representations of women passing any criteria, Bechdel Test, Smurfette Principle, Trinity Syndrome, you could chose to throw at it.

There are two main female characters in the film and they both come across as real, confident, talented, flawed and independently minded. The camera does love Keira Knightley but it doesn’t fawn over her like it did in Love Actually, it looks beyond her face and focuses on the person underneath.

There is a nice interaction between the two leads when they first meet. Ruffalo’s Dan is drunk and is trying to persuade Gretta he can make her a star. He tells her she is talented and she’s beautiful to which she replies:

“What’s beauty got to do with it?”

But just as the righteous feminist in you is punching the air you realise that beauty has everything to do with it, just not surface beauty. Begin Again lets you spend an hour and three quarters with some really nice people doing moving and inspiring things and their gender is irrelevant to that.

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