Last year my wife and I watched a movie called Begin Again (2013). It has a loose romantic-comedy-drama framework but was produced by Judd Apatow, so all the characters say “fuck” and the leads don’t get together in the end. The movie is fine, but would otherwise be forgettable if not for it’s own internal contradictions with the themes it’s trying to convey. It stars an actual pop musician in a surprisingly subversive, self-parodying role that borders on performance art, and for this reason I find this movie really fascinating.
While my esteemed colleague Adam is playing with his new VR-gadget and no doubt preparing some more riveting articles about his experiences in The VR Zone; I’m going to recount the story of a forgotten movie and critically analyse it for no-one’s enjoyment but my own.
Begin Again stars Keira Knightley as a Real Musician™ called Gretta, who at the start of the movie is on a stage in a noisy music bar playing an acoustic guitar and doing that whispering-her-lyrics thing, in that style that’s really popular on corporate indie radio and Youtube. This movie exists in an alternate reality though, and no one is paying attention to the beautiful musician playing popular music at a bar for watching live music, except for Mark Ruffalo; here playing a down-and-out music producer called Dan, who is captivated by Gretta’s Real Music™ performance.
Dan is characterised as a drunk divorcee who’s hit the figurative bottom-of-the-barrel. After a few scenes, we also learn that Gretta is going through a hard time in life too. Flash-back to a few months ago; Gretta has moved with her boyfriend and songwriting partner, Dave, from England to New York. The two had a song featured in an unnamed popular movie credited only to Dave, as the song was a birthday present that Gretta wrote for him. How lovely! Dave scored a record-deal from the song.
There’s a series of vignettes showing the two moving to New York, beginning Dave’s music recording sessions, and ultimately their drifting apart. At first they both like simple things like pianos, acoustic guitars, coffee, and laughing at ostentatious things. However, as Dave gets deeper into the recording sessions in New York with his record company and A&R handlers, he begins to grow a moustache and starts drinking wanky hipster teas – much to down-to-Earth Gretta’s chagrin! Dave starts to incorporate more non-real music elements in his recording sessions, which are leading to a style of music that isn’t to Real Musician™ Gretta’s taste at all!
Eventually, Dave’s symbolic loss of way and disconnect with Real Music™ is portrayed through his cheating on Gretta, by sleeping with a hot Asian girl (I think there is something symbolically meta going on with this, which is why I mention her ethnicity; more below), and after telling Gretta about it, they break up. She becomes depressed, while he becomes a super-famous and detestable pop-musician; appearing on television in spurious music awards, despite being portrayed as having comparably little musical talent compared to Gretta – at least in a Real Musician™ sense, which is a concept the film props up as one of the great and overlooked artistic poles of contemporary society.
Hilariously, as Dave is portrayed as becoming more of a wanker-hipster in the recording studio, his singing voice gradually changes too. While his singing style is initially a non-assuming. pleasant traditional style; over time his voice becomes increasingly nasally, as the backing music becomes more and more poppy…
In fact, as the film reaches its point of characterising Dave as the film’s antagonist, his voice and the music start to sound just like Maroon 5. In the film, this is characterised as the figurative selling-out of his morality and compassion, with the victim of his selfishness being his partner Gretta, whom he literally sells-out and emotionally destroys by taking the song she wrote for him (for his birthday!!), building his success on it, cheating on her, and then ditching her. Brutal stuff.
This is hilarious! I thought, they’re actually characterising soulless, bullshit pop music as Maroon 5, and this actor actually sounds just like the Maroon 5 guy! This is really aware of itself, and seems to be saying something pretty relevant about vapid modern pop music and the cult of celebrity.
Then I realised that Dave is actually played by Adam Levine, the lead singer of Maroon 5.
According to production notes, he also didn’t take a salary to perform in this film. Was Adam Levine burning to play essentially himself as a villain in a film about the music-style he plays in real-life, that the film portrays as destroying musical artistry, the music industry that supports “real musicians™”, and also musicians who are characterised, like him, in the media as lacking common-values?
At a further glance on IMDB, one of the current top message board thread titles is “Adam Levine makes me want to kill myself”. It’s incredible that Adam Levine agreed to do this, but doing so – I think – show’s self-awareness of the fact that he’s aware of opinions like this. His voice is so recognisable as corporate pop-music, yet he is also so popular that he could play the villain of the movie and still sell the featured song. He’s both having and eating cake! His casting choice as the film’s antagonist is inspired, and I really respect him for taking on this role.
I think this is all really interesting.
Furthermore, the reality is that Gretta’s music was just as synthetic as the Non-Real Music™ played by Dave. Obviously for production reasons they couldn’t include a soundtrack with crummy sounding audio; but she recorded a pristine sounding album outside on the streets of New York city, with the music sounding as though it was recorded in a high-end studio (which it no-doubt was). Whatever. This movie is shallow and dumb and masquerades as real art.
The film’s main conceit is that musicians like Dave are not very talented, and they play vapid music for a vapid fan-base. In contrast, Gretta plays a ‘down-to-Earth’, raw music style with real instruments and real musicians that lacks the embellishment and polish of modern pop-music – thus IT IS BETTER! While Gretta’s music in the film is just as cleanly-produced and polished as Dave’s, despite and because of being recorded outside with acoustic instruments – it is Real Music™. It is better than other music. Don’t argue!
Just to clarify – I don’t really dislike any type of music. I wouldn’t go out of my way to listen to Maroon 5 or the style of Real Music™ that Gretta plays in this film, but both styles have their place to different audiences, and that’s fine!
Let’s go down the rabbit-hole of context much, much deeper. There are two more things to be aware of with this film. First, the Director of Begin Again, John Carney, had his break-out directorial effort with a musical film called Once, filmed in his home-country Ireland. I’ve never seen Once, but I heard a lot about it when I travelled in Korea. Once was a surprise hit in the US, being a small budget film that made a multi-million dollar return on it’s relatively tiny budget and evidently won an Oscar. More notably, it became HUGE in many Asian countries over the years following it’s US release. Earlier, I made the incredibly racist observation that Dave slept with a hot Asian girl*, and in the film this is the action that was the crux that destroyed the relationship between Dave and Real Musician™ Gretta. I might be reaching here, but I have to wonder if this is personally symbolic of success destroying the connection between art and the artist?
Furthermore, let’s look at the song called “Lost Stars”, as performed and released as a single in 2014 by Adam Levine. In the film, Lost Stars is the Real Music™ song that Gretta gifts to Dave for his birthday. The film depicts Dave as ripping the soul from the song in turning it into a Maroon 5-esque pop anthem, and becoming a complete arsehole in the process. He performs the song at the end of the film. Before this performance, he promises Gretta that he will perform it as she wrote it. However, as the crowd reacts increasingly positive to it, Dave and his band start playing it more and more pop-esque, rather than in the Real Music™ style. Gretta winces at Dave’s Adam Levine-esque vocal affectations as he brings the song to a raucous and nasally crescendo of full-on Maroon 5 pop-styling, and she walks out from the performance realising and accepting that he is lost from her, and lost from Real Music™.
This version of the song is the one that hit number 1 in The Philippines, South Korea, and Thailand. It also has over 40 million views on Youtube. What does this say, that the version of the song that the movie treated with such derision, from the protagonists’ viewpoint, was released and became so popular in contemporary society?
John Carney and the song writers produced two versions of Lost Stars; the simple version as performed by Gretta and pre-wanker-Dave, which symbolised the positive theme portrayed in the film of music as art. The other version as performed by Adam Levine as a detestable pop-star was used to demonstrate music as something that is all flash and little substance. This latter song is derided by the film through the characterisations, the themes, and the actions and opinions of the lead characters who we empathise with and support through the movie. It was also a massive success.
But in the end, it doesn’t matter. It was a Judd Apatow romantic-comedy-drama (and sort-of-musical) that can be summarised as:
“I play real fucking music”, “your fucking music is not real music™”, “your real music™ is fucking amazing”, “real music™ is fucking great”, “weed!”, ” we have, like, fucking music souls or whatever” “we’re almost at the end, but let’s not kiss – but I’m fucking happy and fulfilled!” “me-fucking-too!” The End.
The film was popular and made a ton of money. Adam Levine didn’t take a salary for the movie, but he made a ton of money from music single sales (I assume). I have no idea who the target audience for this movie was, but it likely wasn’t for disenfranchised artists and their sympathetic fans who the movie portrays as the heroes. For it’s noble theme, it still functioned as a Hollywood money-making film with soundtrack tie-ins marketed to an audience that the story of the film viciously criticised.
At the end of the story, Gretta subverts her new record label and sells her Real Music™ album online for $1.00. How much do cinema tickets cost where you live? In Australia, they’re generally $18.00. If you saw this movie in a cinema in Australia, you may have payed 18 times more than Gretta released her album for online, in the film’s fiction. I’m not one to say what is and isn’t art, or comment on the value of art, but in considering all of this – I catch the whiff of low-brow stylistic sincerity masquerading as real art in an effort to generate profits.
In the end, the film wasn’t about music. It wasn’t about art. It wasn’t even about cultural criticism. It was a Hollywood movie, starring three very popular celebrities, in a familiar format and produced by a popular producer with a built-in audience. It told a story about something more noble than itself. Such things are common; Superhero movies are about noble acts of heroism, but only exist because a company can make money from them. For a movie to treat it’s subject of “real art”, and “real music” as noble, and then make money from the elements of the story (such as the villain of the story and his shitty song) that were derided as cheapening and lessening art…
I think that’s interesting.
Recommendation: Sure, why not?
(*note, I just asked my wife if I’m a racist, and she informed me that she’s Chinese. I never even noticed!)