Special review from filmmaker & musician Ukelilli. Enjoy. -jo
* * *
Last Friday, my husband and I were lucky enough to get into a Society of Composers and Lyricists (SCL) screening of Begin Again, a film from this summer directed by Joe Carney, the director behind Once. (As you will recall, Once was the sleeper hit musical from 2006 that introduced the world to The Frames’ Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová. It was then workshopped into a play and became a multiple Tony Award winner in 2012.)
Any-hoo, I had a lot of interest in seeing Begin Again. A) I love Mark Ruffalo and typically like Keira Knightley. B) I also happen to be a fan of British comedian James Corden and Yasiin Bey a.k.a. Mos Def, who portrayed two of the supporting characters. And C) I liked Once a lot, plus I can rarely resist a musical of any kind. So yeah, totally the target audience.
The movie was very sweet! There were some great quirky moments — for example Ruffalo’s ‘Dan’ orchestrating Knightley’s character’s song in his mind — and some beautifully-edited scenes (the opening sequence, the creation of the songs for ‘Gretta’s’ new album, the “what’s in your iTunes” montage when Ruffalo and Knightley are wandering around the city listening to Stevie Wonder’s “For Once In My Life” a.k.a. one of my most favoritest songs ever). And, on top of that, it really made me miss New York!
Not to spoil the ending, but Begin Again had a very different ‘happy ending’ than a typical Hollywood film. I liked it: it works and it left me feeling good. I wonder if they could’ve done without the tag during the credits, or perhaps they could have worked it in differently. I don’t know — hopefully you’ve all seen it or will, so let’s jump to the composer Q&A.
After the screening, the film’s composer and songwriter, Gregg Alexander, best known as the former frontman of the New Radicals, had a conversation with Phil Gallo, a longtime reporter for Billboard magazine. First, let me say the music that the characters in the film “create” wasn’t the type of thing I would normally buy, but it was no stretch to make the audience believe it was the kind of thing that people would love and get really emotional about. I came into the film assuming that it had been made along the lines of how Once was made — a sort of group effort that stemmed from the music, but in fact, Alexander was an old-fashioned hired hand. Carney had the script and was on the prowl for people to write songs for his characters to sing. Based on the Q&A, I presume he chose Gregg Alexander in much the same way that he chose the actors to be in his movie — an audition and selection process.
It was interesting to hear some of Gregg Alexander’s musical background. I think he’s just younger (42) and poppier than most film composers I’m used to hearing about. When asked about influences, he mentioned “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” and Prince. He said that role models are super important to him. “We really really wanna touch our idols,” he said. “We have this dream that we can do something that even touches the shore of where they came up.”
He discussed his relationship with the music team, two of whom joined him and were sitting in the audience chiming in when he asked for their two cents. All three of them agreed that it was a very autonomous team and that everyone just gave “really positive, great vibes.” The three of them adored Matt Sullivan, one of the music supervisors, and mentioned fondly his sister who had visited the set many times.
The music team also all agreed that John Carney, the director, was fabulous to work with. Not only did he have pretty strong, well-founded opinions about music (he was the bass player in Glen Hansard’s band, the Frames), but he was generally very fluid about changes to his script. After the songs came in, he had to make changes to his script, and he was cool with that. One of the scenes that, in retrospect, kind of seems like where the whole film might have started (when ‘Gretta’ plays her “X-mas present” song for her then-boyfriend) was added in late in the development of the film. It’s a scene which I feel like so much of the movie was built around!
A little bit about that song, “Lost Stars”. I would call it a major character in the movie. It had a lot of plot based on it (including a lot of the conflict in the movie and a lot of the climax of the movie) and so, Alexander said, the director came to him and said, “You gotta write a song that will save someone’s life,” which is a pretty high demand, but also a pretty awesome request. I gotta say, I’m not a Maroon 5 fan, but Adam Levine knocked it out of the park in the concert version of the track at the end of the movie. Alexander mentioned that Adam Levine was his first choice to play the character of ‘Dave Kohl’ in the film, based on a couple of factors. As he said: “You have to be a pretty damn good singer to go onscreen every week and judge singers.” (Levine is a judge on reality competition The Voice.) Alexander also noted Levine had just the right experience of hitting it big just before/as the music industry was changing, which is a lot of what this movie is about.
On the technical side, Alexander mentioned that the soundtrack took 49 days to record in studio. They recorded all of the vocals/songs and lipsynched them in the film. He mentioned that since Keira Knightley (who did most of the singing) didn’t have a musical background, so she was more comfortable perfecting it in studio and knowing that she had a good version so she could concentrate on the acting during the filming. Also, so much of it was shot outdoors in New York City, I can only assume it would have been hell for the audio team to deal with all the ambient noise.
Gregg Alexander closed out the interview by singing a couple of songs accompanied by one of his fellow composers on acoustic guitar. Now, let me start by saying, Alexander was a CHARACTER. He said, “Sorry, I’ve been up since 4 a.m.” (But something tells me it wasn’t just sleep deprivation making him loopy.) Whatever he was on, he was entertaining. He cracked a lot of jokes and did things like singing an Oasis song in the style of AC/DC to prove a point. So, by the time it was nearing 10pm and he broke out into song, it was pretty emotional. He was screaming and looking down and standing up and sitting down — it kind of felt like you were looking through a peep-hole into a teenager’s bedroom.
I don’t know if Gregg Alexander and the other talented musicians behind this film will win any big awards, but I do know they put a lot of passion into what they’ve done and have been rewarded by “good vibes” from audiences all over the world. Last Friday night, that was me.
If you want to see Begin Again, it is now available for sale, rental and VOD. The special features on both DVD and Blu-ray include a making-of featurette, interviews with the cast and crew, and music videos.