Begin Again (3.75/5)
In 2007 writer/director John Carney introduced the world to Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova, two magical, humble musicians that were known only in small corners of the world, by way of a quaint, lived in musical titled Once. Both a dissection of the creative process and the power of human connection, Once hummed its way into audience’s hearts behind a powerhouse song (Falling Slowly), moving music, and two charming central performances. This small, unassuming picture turned into one of the biggest indie film’s of the 00’s, and it’s no surprise that Carney aims to reclaim the magic he seven years ago with his newest film, Begin Again. Much like Once, Begin Again revolves around two musically inclined people, Dan (Mark Ruffalo) and Gretta (Keira Knightley), frayed by the death of long-term relationships. Dan is a spotty music producer overwhelmed by alcohol and his bad boy attitude, while Gretta is a marginalized singer/songwriter who refuses to compromise. After a serendipitous meeting, and throughtout the creation of Gretta’s debut album, the two forge a professional relationship that mutates into a deeply intimate friendship
From the start, it’s clear Carney sets out to tell a story about friendship, not love or attraction. Or in musical terms, he’s more interested in the emotional pull of the notes than the lyrics. Unfortunately, Carney is treading overly familiar ground here, often mimicking similar beats from Once. There’s still a handful of surprises, but everything feels like a derivation of Once, and lessening the film’s impact as a result. As for the music, it’s quite fantastic, especially the somber numbers that feature a lonesome Keira Knightley accompanied by only a guitar and a few piano keys. For as good as the music is, Begin Again pales in comparison to its spiritual predecessor, both in content and staging. Outside of one number, almost all the songs in Once felt integrated into the world, not simply dubbed in. Not that there’s anything wrong with lip syncing, but there’s an unbelievable amount of genuine emotion stemming from each musical interlude in Once, making the film feel more alive. Begin Again, however, feels far too polished for its own good, especially when the central focus of Gretta’s album is raw authenticity. Similarities and disappointments aside, Begin Again is still a charming film lead by two affable leads, a warm story, and a collection of songs that are irresistible.
Idolization and money, at least the continuous acquisition of both, can cause creative stagnation. This notion seems especially prevalent in the world of music where countless independent bands own a distinct, inalienable sound in their infancy, but lose their voice and perspective as they gain more and more traction in the world of music. I don’t entirely believe this narrative unfolding for all bands, but there’s no doubt that when a major record company throws money at a band, there are certain expectations a band must fulfill. This kind of factional genesis is one of the major themes in the bizarre and wildly interesting Frank. The band at the center of Frank, Soronprfbs, isn’t particularly interested in achieving fame until Jon (Domhnall Gleeson), a failed songwriter, joins the band. He, out of them all, desperately wants universal adoration. Led by Frank (Michael Fassbender), a man who dons a massive papier-mâché head that looks like its straight out of the Nintendo Wii universe, Soronprfbs’ music emanates from another dimension. But, as Jon meddles with the band’s sound while exploiting them on social media, the band’s original dynamic changes.
As the band build towards a performance at South by Southwest, their sound begins to morph into something relatively more digestible for the masses, all while masking their idiosyncrasies as a band. Inevitably, a rift appears, signaling the death of the band and their dedication to one another. Soronprfbs, once unknown to the masses, is a foreign entity to its self. Frank‘s screenplay,written by Jon Ronson and Peter Straughan, deftly explores the appeal of achieving fame, as well as the cost of being universally loved. Smartly, the screenplay doesn’t entirely eviscerate the notion of becoming famous, but staunchly asserts that massive adulation isn’t necessarily healthy for all bands. Amidst the band’s painful assimilation into the world of pop, is a great deal of dark humor and depressing dramatic shifts. As imperfect as these shifts are, they’re supplemented by a sublime performance from Michael Fassbender who, in spite of his massive mask, leaps off the screen. Fassbender’s playful enthusiasm is certainly addicting and funny, but Fassbender, through the inflection of his voice, subtly exposes Frank’s humanity underneath the mask. It’s an engrossing, uncompromising performance, which wonderfully echoes the film’s main sentiment: the only universal sound worth making is your own.