Jan 15

The Freaky Trigger Not-A-Poll Films Of 2014: 11: Two Earnest Musicals

Do You See + FT6 comments • 538 views

The difficult joint number eleven post.

The very placement of these two extremely problematic films will suggest cowardice to you. And you would be right. I did not want a top ten that officially had these films in it. They are both too flawed to be put in that group (not that the top ten are in any way perfect). But both of these films actively repelled me at points in their running time, and were laughably up themselves too. One features Mark Radcliffe and Stuart Maconie pretending to be completely different DJ’s and failing. The other equally laughably suggests that it would be OK to stay in James Corden’s flat for a bit (and that you can pay for a flat in Manhattan by busking).

Those films are: GOD HELP THE GIRL and BEGIN AGAIN.
number 11

Whilst they are both quite different films, they are both about more or less the same thing. The struggle for a genius (female) songwriter to make baby steps in the music business. In both films the genius songwriter is spotted by a male mentor/Svengali figure who has a somewhat world weary or patronising view of pop music. And in both films there is a small degree of unrequited sexual tension between the songwriter and the Svengali. Want more similarities? Both films accept that pop authenticity is ridiculous and then chase after it in a hypocritical fashion. Both films fetishise and seem to only understand a music industry stalled about twenty years ago (pre-mini disc stuff). Both female leads are outsiders in their communities. And both films have moments so cringeworthy you may be tempted to turn the DVD off or, in the case of Begin Again, put your fingers in your ears and hum a bit loudly to get past the father/daughter bonding sessions.

So much for the similarities. God Help The Girl is the indie upstart here. Written and directed by Belle & Sebastian’s Stuart Murdoch, this is a long gestating project about a Glaswegian girl band, originally released as an album. Murdoch’s strengths and weaknesses as a songwriter are writ large through the film. A preciousness, a self aggrandizing independence are on display, along with well observed character work. Perhaps one of the toughest things in the film, which it never quite reconciles, is that its lead cast is not Scottish. Emily Browning, our (self proclaimed) genius songwriter, is Australian. James and Cassie the other band members are English. The hallowed DJ’s (Radcliffe and Maconie) are English too. Its a strange bubble which is weird when it is not addressed, and worse when it is. Pile a somewhat melodramatic eating disorder subplot and a hackneyed love triangle in the mix and there are moments when we totter from life affirming pop music to suicide in a tone deaf manner.

And yet, and yet… The songs are good. They are performed really well and usually stages in an entertaining manner. The film is pretty confident about when it is being a musical and is good at being a musical. (and I love a good musical). Despite there being a clear difference between Browning (a bona fide movie actress sadly waiting for the Sophie Ellis-Bextor biopic that will never come) and her more shaky semi-pro co-stars, there is a slapdash charm to it all. Whilst it doesn’t earn its emotional tug from the writing and directing, it does from its songs and does conjure up the joy of living through pop music. Luckily the film is pretty well encapsulated by some of the clips – take this song The Psychiatrist Is In, how it comes in, how it builds as a performance and then how it ends. It is pretty representative of the film itself. If this puts your teeth on edge (it puts about three out of twenty of mine) the film is not for you. If you think its quite sweet, go for it. Don’t say you weren’t warned.

So to Begin Again, which was initially called Can A Song Save Your Life. Perhaps the title was changed because it was quite clear what the answer was (the answer is no, unless played by a fully qualified DJ, last night). The original title does explain though the earnestness of the whole affair – Mark Ruffalo is a down on his luck alcoholic A&R guy with a failed marriage, a wildchild kid, burnt all of his professional relationships. Keira Knightly is the singer-songwriter emigree recently dumped by Adam Levine our of Maroon Five (and we are supposed to feel SORRY for her). He is drunk, contemplating suicide, at an open mic night (correlation is not causation), she does a weedy girl’n’guitar ballad which suddenly grabs him – he imagines orchestration and is suddenly enthused by this act he has discovered.

This is the song that saves his life.

Yeah, I know. Unlike God Help The Girl the songs in Begin Again aren’t all that great. Oddly they are usually saved by Keira Knightly’s performances, her voice isn’t strong but she acts the performances well and at this point the film is so ridiculous in building its feelgood bonhomie that it actually carries you along. You see despite Ruffalo explaining in no uncertain terms to Knightly that there is no such thing as authenticity in pop music, they then proceed to blow a lot of money recording her album live on the streets of New York. This is cinematically lots of fun, but in reality would end up with honking traffic, aircon buzz and the sound of being arrested a lot.

Written and directed by John Carney who made Once, it tries to recreate the magic of his previous low budget musical, despite looking slick as hell. It tries to justify what was inherrent in Once, which was a clear musical just doing its songs on the street, as opposed to bending over backwards to justify it here. All the music in Begin Again is diegetic, it comes from the characters actions, which feels like a step back from Once. And yet there is an amazing amount of charm both from its core cast (even Corden) and its own wrong-headedness about music.It is the most rockist poptimist charter you’ll see. You walk out of the cinema believing that music wants to be free, and not constrained by record labels and what Steve Albini said was right and – hold on – Keira Knightly isn’t a winsome singer songwriter from the posh bit of Bristol. On the other hand Adam Levine is a knobbish rock star so there must be some truth in here.

I love both of these films despite themselves, or despite myself. It was enjoyable to feel my reaction to them waver between teeth grating embarrassment to giving myself over to the joy of both projects. Can I truly say they are any good? I don’t know. I enjoyed them, and I daresay I will rewatch them too, from the beginning again, god help me..


  1. 1
    Mark M on 22 Jan 2015 #

    Oh, Pete, you are a brave/sick man. I have a feeling we talked about the Begin Again trailer, which to me made it look like possibly the worst film ever made (or at least until the Whiplash trailer, which I’ve seen a dozen times at least, and makes it seem more awful every time). And as God Help The Girl – yikes. And not Scottish? What the fuck? And yet, and yet… I’m a sucker for a music industry film, and I’m sure at some point I will succumb to watching both of these, or at least (more likely) part of both these, just so I’m sure.
    Begin Again/Coyote Ugly – there’s a double bill of the future, surely?

  2. 2
    Ewan on 22 Jan 2015 #

    Ah yes, Begin Again is definitely a film I had a lot of fun watching even as I could never place it in my own top-of-the-year films, and even though I had a lot of conflicted emotions for many of the same reasons (sort-of-horrible songs, and Knightley’s character being one of those magical women who are perky and embrace life and cure the man’s life-weary ennui). And yet, I do love Ruffalo as an actor in just about everything he does, and Knightley is actually quite delightful. (My other pick for this loved-the-film-but-can’t-really-in-all-honesty-include-it-in-a-best-of-list spot would probably be Say When, in fact.)

    On the other matter, you can’t really judge any film by its trailer. Whiplash is a very enjoyable film indeed.

  3. 3
    Pete Baran on 22 Jan 2015 #

    I agree with you Ewan, though I think the film and Knightly make the role better than a magical dream pixie girl, she is stoical rather than kooky (in most ways she is the opposite of kooky – James Corden is probably the magical nightmare impish mate in this equation).

    The songs in Begin Again are by Gregg Alexander of the New Radicals – which may colour your opinion even more… (One of the beauty of the songs being so average is that it suggests that Ruffalo is not saved by a good song, rather any song can be a good song in the right situation).

  4. 4
    Mike on 22 Jan 2015 #

    There’s nothing even remotely “manic pixie dream girl” about Knightley’s character here. Neither as written or performed. Nothing whatsoever.

  5. 5
    swanstep on 22 Jan 2015 #

    Perhaps you’re going to get into speculating about why this might be later Pete, but music-related films were thicker on the ground in 2014 than in any year I can remember. I mean, as well as your two here there were at least well-reviewed docos on Nick Cave, Spandau Ballet(!), Fela Kuti, Glen Campbell, and Slint, plus Get On Up and Jersey Boys, We Are The Best!, Whiplash, Northern Soul, Into The Woods, Annie, Beyond The Lights, Muppets’ Most Wanted. (I’ll probably see all of these eventually.) I suspect that rather than being a truly significant upswelling that this phenomenon is largely due to the sheer numbers of films getting *some* sort of release these days (according to the NY Times’s lead critic A.O Scott, by Dec 11, the Times had reviewed just over 950 films last year, so we’re talking at least 1000 films getting significant attention from someone in 2014) *plus* a dedicated specialist music press means that music-related offerings get noticed at higher rates than similarly low-profile thrillers, dramas, horrors, slices-o’-life, etc.. But you may have other ideas.

  6. 6
    Mark G on 2 Feb 2015 #

    We laughed at the trailer, and yet they bought it for me for Christmas. (begin again). One really nice scene was when the daughter is asked to play a solo at the end of a live take. But mom says she’s terrible. What happens? Great? Or lousy? Actually, she plays understatedly but loud enough, and it works both for the track and in context too.

    The sort of ‘getting it right’ that makes you forgive one of the getting it wrong scene (e.g. Her guilty pleasure track is What? )

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