Image Credit: Entertainment One
Begin Again exhibits features that have caused all too many films and tv programmes to become suddenly dated in these recent months. Surely, jealousy at the life of a fictional character has never been higher since the COVID-19 era, when the activities once considered “normal” are paraded in front of us during regular hours of Netflix bingeing. For those of us looking ahead to a time when it will be possible to wonder into bars and attend concerts free from social distancing, Begin Again provides a novel kind of escapism at the price of a few unpleasant tropes that are best left to cinematic history.
At the beginning of our story, we are introduced to Gretta (Keira Knightley), an aspiring singer-songwriter left dejected by her cheating boyfriend Dave (another singer-songwriter, played by Adam Levine of Maroon 5 fame). Her discovery by weathered and failing record producer Dan (Mark Ruffalo) is told in parallel with his own introduction, revealing both characters to be at crossroads in their lives. The story follows these central characters as they create Gretta’s album together, whilst navigating their complicated romantic pasts.
There is a strange progression from Dan’s initial resistance to Gretta’s insistence on artistic and creative integrity to his indie, roots-up approach to creating her album, revealing our two central characters to be extremely mismatched. The transition between Gretta’s initial resistance to being signed up, and her ultimate enthusiasm for the project, underline how the film fails to capitalize on the backstories that make these characters. Dave, and Dan’s estranged wife Miriam (Catherine Keener) are no more than cardboard cut-outs: why is the one redeemed for infidelity, and the other rejected? The film’s message that music brings us together – no matter how different are – is an excellent one, but ultimately could be better executed
It is very easy to draw parallels between this and 2018’s A Star Is Born. Though the latter more obviously borrows its premise from a pre-existing film, it is boosted by the inclusion of an experienced singer in the lead role. Begin Again uses the trope of the withheld female songstress discovered by tired, past-his-prime male working in the music industry. But whereas in A Star Is Born the emotional turmoil occurs throughout, and persists through the musical blossoming of its female star, the partnership between Gretta and Dan is presented as the natural epilogue and healing process for the troubled romantic histories of the protagonists. What Begin Again lacks is true closure between the protagonists and the ex-partners that form the background of the entire plot.
Disappointingly, for all the feel-good factor that the film does provide, the presentation of minor characters leaves much to be desired as far as inclusivity is concerned. The most noticeable of these for me was the disorientating misogyny directed at Dan’s teenage daughter Violet (Hailee Steinfeld), when she is shamed for wearing shorts and t-shirts in summery weather. When Gretta tells her that the boy she likes would notice her if she “left more to the imagination”, the sweetness of the film is undermined. It is evident of the pre-#metoo culture in that a woman’s fashion choices dictate the treatment she receives from society.
James Corden as Steve, Gretta’s best friend, is another limitation. As the only important function of his character is to support Gretta both emotionally and professionally as she embarks on her career in music, Corden’s “fat best friend” could be grouped together with similarly offensive tropes – the “black best friend” and the “gay best friend” being the most prominent examples. These features of the film are a disappointing reminder of the dangers of passively consuming entertainment; it is important to consider where our sources for entertainment come from, and why we consider them as such. Begin Again is an entertaining watch, but the seven years between its release and the present are noticeable.
These plot points stick out uncomfortably in 2020, but overall do not take away from the enjoyment of the film. Despite the accumulation of flaws, Begin Again has a heart to it and is effortlessly watchable. It is bolstered by its musical soundtrack, and crowned by central song “Lost Stars”, a dreamy ballad that was nominated for an Oscar (written in-film by Gretta). Dave’s commercialised renditions of the song illustrate the watering down of talent that can arise from the mainstream pop industry, providing a musical plot point towards the end of the film. And, despite ill-mannered criticism of Knightley by the film’s own director, John Carney, her performance as Gretta lends a charm to the film that would otherwise have been missed.
Inevitably such films rely on tropes – all musicals do. But if the film were remade today, hopefully the intricacies of the character biographies would match the feel-good ethos that the music projects. Watch Begin Again for some light entertainment; enjoy the songs, enjoy the new sense of escapism it provides, enjoy how the film effortlessly captures the beauty of New York – but recognise it as a product of its time.