Buried Credits, a column that deep dives into the IMDB pages of favorite actors, directors, and writers to find their lost, forgotten, or unknown film and TV credits, continues this week with works featuring Mark Ruffalo..
Begin Again (2013)
John Carney, director of Begin Again, is back in the spotlight this year with the release of the universally praised Sing Street. This is a familiar road for John Carney, as he had a similar response with 2007’s Once. However, critics and audiences alike seem to be responding to Sing Street as though it were from a first time writer/director. The reason for this is probably because in 2013 Carney came to the U.S. to make a break in to Hollywood with Begin Again, and outside of a few smaller circles, the film was feels forgotten.
Begin Again follows Mark Ruffalo as Dan, a down and out divorcee, and music producer trying to hold on to his dignity all while preaching the truth of what he feels is real music. It’s clear that he has a line he is refusing to cross when it comes to projects, and it is also clear that his unwillingness to break his own rules has resulted in him being ostracized by his peers. Dan is old hat. He represents a dying breed in the music industry. To him, the music is what matters, and sales come after.
Keira Knightley (Pirates of the Caribbean) plays Gretta, the shining light of pure honesty within song that Dan sees as his saving grace. Maybe, just maybe, by being in her gravitational pull he will quit drinking, fix his relationship with his daughter, and find some modicum of success that he missed out on along the way. Gretta also happens to be in NYC because she is the girlfriend of rising pop star Dave, played by a surprisingly convincing Adam Levine (Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping and judge on The Voice).
We’ve seen movies like this before. The premise is well covered ground that has been circled and picked to death by shrewd Hollywood producers looking to make a quick buck. It’s a well worn formula that tends to make its money back over time. Premises like this are long term investments in Hollywood. They’re generally cheaper to make and even if they don’t make their budget back in theaters, they come through in deals with cable networks, rentals, and streaming services. However, to make the mistake of putting Begin Again in to the same category as the other films that share its premise would be an oversight and mistake. The difference between Begin Again and every movie that has had a similar premise is John Carney is directing and Mark Ruffalo is your leading man.
Mark Ruffalo as Dan is not charming as the pessimist. He’s not ruggedly handsome in his lack of caring, alcoholism, or self destructive behavior. And for the most part, he’s not forgivable in his actions. He’s passionate, he’s selfish, and he has a goal. You may come to respect him, but you may never truly like him. The fact of the matter is that John Carney and Mark Ruffalo aren’t asking you to. They are only asking you to go along for the ride, enjoy the music, and listen to Dan about the one thing he’s good at: music. John Carney successfully subverts character expectation, and uses the subtly effective Ruffalo to his full potential to explore a man who is being driven by an unstoppable passion for his own artistic ideology.
I feel like what we have in Dan is a strong reflection of Carney himself. However, on the other side of the coin, Carney struggles to fully realize Gretta as a character. There are several moments in the film spent with Gretta and dealing with her struggles of being the writer behind the star, but she’s never as interesting as Dan. That is where fault truly exists in Begin Again. The story is lopsided in the handling of its emotional narrative. We’re asked to care about Gretta, but we’re never given enough access her personality or her faults to draw a full picture. Luckily though, Gretta is used effectively as a reflection of Dan’s need for redemption, and there are plenty of moments Gretta and Dan sharing conversation that help to fully shape the thematic narrative, which is only further explored with a spectacular soundtrack.
The music in Begin Again is a demonstration in the ability for Carney to do no wrong in his choices of songwriting teams. These types of movies can prove to be difficult. Unlike most musicals, the songs in the hybrid type films that John Carney makes are used primarily for character development, and if it is unclear how a particular song fits in the larger puzzle, then it can leave the audience feeling ostracized from the material. Thankfully Carney know his own musical choices and how they connect to his stories. Between Once, Sing Street, and Begin Again, there is no shortage of quality original music that you can get only in a Carney picture.
Verdict: Buried Treasure