Some critics know everything there is to know about a movie months before it is released. They pride themselves on being in the know. When they finally see the movie, their review is predicated on whether or not they personally enjoy it, not on whether or not it is any good, and their enjoyment or lack of it depends on whether or not it lives up to preconceived expectations.
I was never this kind of critic. Before going into a screening, I kept myself as far into the dark as was possible. I never even read the press notes, as I didn’t want my reviews to sound like a press releases. In 2006, when I was assigned to review John Carney’s “Once,” all I knew was that it had something to do with Irish music. The lights went down and the first scene was a rough-looking shot of a guy with a guitar trying to draw a crowd. It was 10 am and I wasn’t in the mood for a documentary about street musicians.
But the guy was pretty good and so was the song. Then the girl showed up. And when the lights came up, I felt utterly transformed by the picture. The other critics milled around in the lobby, blabbing about this and that, acting for all practical purposes as if it were just another day, that they hadn’t seen anything special. I got out of there fast, lest the miasma of indifference swallow me up, and quickly wrote my rave review, which went like this:
A television director and two musicians have made a miracle of a movie that is both fairy tale and slice of life. A Dublin busker sings Van Morrison songs by day and his own by night. One evening, a girl stops to listen. So begins a romantic odyssey into the mystery of being young, talented and poor as dirt. Soon they are hanging out in a music store, where she plays the piano along to one of his songs. As they get to know each other, he ask her to write lyrics for an unfinished song, a romantic melody for which he believes he has become too cynical to do justice. In following the aimless rhythm of his characters’ lives, director John Carney keeps the pace slow. The first half-hour is built around a series of songs, all composed and performed by actor Glen Hansard, in real life the leader of the band “The Frames.” It is a perfect way to set up the story, as this guy is so emotionally wrecked that the only way he can express himself is through singing. The girl, played by Marketa Irglova, is first seen selling newspapers in the street, bringing to mind Jean Seberg in Godard’s “Breathless.” She is a Czech immigrant, living with her mother and child. The plot kicks in with their decision to record a demo of his songs. The recording session is one of the many places in which the director gets everything right. Most telling is the car test, in which they listen to the finished recording on a bad car player, to hear what the music might sound like on the radio. This is the kind of detail that musicians all are aware of but seldom makes it into the scripts of movies about music. “Once” is that rare movie in which we fall in love, not only with the characters, but with the love between the characters. In the painful moments when the pull of the past threatens to push away the promise of the future, we also feel the danger of losing something special.
Download Bill White’s 2006 interview with John Carney, Glen Hansard, and Marketa Irglova:,
Seven years have passed since then, and most people know the story of how this modest little picture became a favorite with audiences everywhere, and won an unexpected Oscar for the song, “Falling Slowly.” Irglova, who thought she would soon be back pursuing a career working with children, found herself an unlikely superstar, touring constantly with Hansard under the moniker “The Swell Season,” until romance and fame took their toll and left her a solo artist with a CD that sold poorly. In the meantime, Carney made two movies that didn’t go anywhere.
So you can imagine how excited I was to see that Carney had made another movie about underdog musicians, this time with a professional cast headed by Kiera Knightley and Mark Ruffalo. I was no longer a critic going into a screening in the dark. Not this time. When I saw “Begin Again,” it had been five years since I had written my last review as a professional critic, and I had no obligation to anybody. I went into this movie strictly as a fan with high expectations. And it exceeded them.
As a writer and director, Carney has plenty to say about music, musicians, and the music business, but above all he is a defender of the primacy of ideas. Without ideas, there is nothing. A group of well-paid, stupid people sit around a table. They are looking for a gimmick to increase CD sales. All are enthusiastic when one suggests including audio commentary by the band members on the music. This is not, of course, an original idea, as it has been used to boost DVD sales, and the person who thinks she has had an idea is merely moving an existing idea from one product to another, without considering the absurd inapplicability of the idea to this new context. And Dan (Mark Ruffalo), the one person who sees that there is no idea in her suggestion is fired for his negative attitude. And this is the man who has built this record company upon his ideas. Now, the people who have no ideas are ousting him.
Dan not only has ideas; he has ears. Where the rest of the world hears a muttering vocal over a minimal guitar, Dan hears a hit song. And with that song as a spark, the ideas rush in, each idea spawning new ideas until finally he has acquired a crew, a team, an unstoppable motion of creativity that no table of record executives could dream of instigating. This motion changes lives, repairs emotional ruptures, and blesses the gullible with the ability to see through bullshit.
Each scene of “Begin Again” bristles with Carney’s ideas. He solves the problems of Knightley’s mouth with a soft-focus long shot, then turns around and shows us the source of her toothy instability, the lower cuspid encroachment throwing curve balls across the mandible field. She still cannot help but do much of her acting with her mouth, but Carney has relaxed its bones and muscles at least enough so that she can sing without evoking Lon Chaney’s unmasked phantom.
Carney also draws a memorable performance from Ruffalo, perhaps the best of his career, and discovers a bit of softness from who-knows-where in Catherine Keener. And he never falls into the aggravatingly lazy trap of character types. A lesser writer would have placed James Corden’s sexually inactive Steve into the girl’s gay best friend stereotype instead of giving him very real characteristics that make us wonder what makes him tick.
One of the best sequences has Gretta (Kiera Knightley) and Dan sharing a twin headphone jack so they can get to know each other by sharing each other’s playlists. The contrast between the outer reality and the inner self as revealed through the music is brilliantly executed. And best of all, there is no kiss goodnight at the end of the escapade. Carney shows, once again, that there are many ways for guys and girls to have meaningful fun together without romance being part of it.
In “Once,” Carney brought out the joy of creative collaboration between two people. In his new picture, this joy is multiplied to include all the participants who are involved in the process of turning a song into a hit record. The arc of the film is the opening up of the work from the personal to the communal, and the result of this manifestation of idea through contribution is a metaphor for the regeneration of a society that has become incapacitated though its refusal to act upon new ideas.