It’s a paradox, in movies and life: The minute you call attention to your authenticity, the less authentic you become.
That was my biggest problem with the much-loved (but not by me) Once, which wore its battered guitar like a badge of integrity and was hopelessly in love with its own scrappiness. It’s also my problem, to some extent, with the latest from Once director John Carney, Begin Again. At least Once’s small budget made its underdog status slightly credible. Begin Again is released by a major studio (Weinstein) and has actual stars—Mark Ruffalo, Keira Knightley, Catherine Keener, and Hailee Steinfeld (from True Grit).
From the moment I saw Mark Ruffalo’s Dan—shaggy, disheveled, looking more like the Flaming Lips’ Wayne Coyne than Coyne himself—getting into his black vintage Jaguar, I knew we were in trouble. First of all, who drives in New York? Secondly, down on their luck guys don’t drive impossibly cool vintage cars. They drive slightly used, unsexy economy cars.
Dan is an A&R guy at a record label that he started, but no longer runs. (In a surprising and fun bit of casting, the bottom-line obsessed label head is played by Mos Def). As we’ve seen in, well, every single movie about A&R guys (This is 40 springs to mind), Dan is looking for an authentic artist. Driving to work as the film begins, he listens to one demo after the next: it’s all tween pop, shallow hiphop, and frat boy rock. “No, no, no!” he screams, literally hurling the CDs out the window. After getting fired (kind of), he wanders drunkenly into a bar and suddenly hears the strains of . . .authenticity. I shit you not. It’s Keira Knightley—just a girl with a guitar, asking you to love her.
Now let me say this: The music that Knightley’s Greta plays is good—maybe not as good as “Falling Slowly” the haunting breakout song from Once, but sweet indie-folk tunes, lilting and hummable. (Her voice is also more than serviceable.) But still, is this the kind of music that is going to make a 47-year-old guy—divorced, broke, nearly estranged from his teenage daughter, and recently fired—pick his head up off the bar and get a new lease on life? I think not.
Of course, Greta has a back story, too. She came from England with her singer songwriter boyfriend (Adam Levine), who got signed to a major record label and immediately changed. We know that he changed because he grew a douchey beard and started wearing a (douchey) beanie cap. Also, a catchy song of his was featured in a movie, which the film also seems to see as “selling out”—despite the fact that it is a movie filled with catchy songs. Do you see the problem here?
And yet. . . If you succumb to its self-consciously shaggy charms and montage-happy tendencies (so many music videos), Begin Again has an undeniable appeal.
It was fun to see Ruffalo taking his bedhead (and bedroom eyes) to new extremes. It was fun to see him flirt and dance and bond over music with Knightley, even if the scene where they gallivant around Manhattan listening to the same tunes on their headphones (using a splitter) seemed ripped straight from Garden State, a film that, in some ways, is the spiritual cousin of this movie. And it was fun to see Hailee Steinfeld as Dan’s teenage daughter—she rolls her eyes convincingly. (Although the film betrays a surprisingly conservative streak when Greta instructs her to dress less provocatively: “Leave some things to the imagination,” she advises.)
And considering its obsession with not selling out, whatever that means, Begin Again comes to a surprising conclusion—that is, if I’m interpreting it correctly: There’s a scene toward the end of the film where Greta watches her ex boyfriend up on stage. He’s taken a darling indie ballad of hers and turned it into a crowd-pleasing arena song and he sounds great (he’s Adam Levine, after all). Suddenly, she seems to make peace with his rock star aspirations, as if she finally understands that there’s room in this world for commercial rock and also for singer songwriters who refuse to compromise. Here’s hoping that next time, Carney will take that philosophy to heart. There’s only so much authenticity a person can take.