Begin Again, and ‘authenticity’

I loved John Carney’s brilliant indie film Once. Loved the music, loved the sort-of-yes-sort-of-no love story, loved Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova. Of course, I especially liked Hansard’s music. “Falling Slowly” remains one of the great love songs ever.

It’s a movie musical about a busker, and so the music has a raw, unpolished quality that’s very appealing. It feels ‘authentic,’ whatever that might mean. Anyway, it’s one of my favorite movies ever, and when I saw that the director, John Carney, had made another movie, another love story, again about musicians that were struggling to break through, I couldn’t wait to see it. And so, thanks be to Netflix, I finally watched Begin Again.

Carney’s a bigger deal this time (that’s what happens when you make a movie for $60,000 and it grosses ten million). This time, he had a budget; this time, the movie has movie stars, Keira Knightley and Mark Ruffalo. And it’s got some great songs again, by Gregg Alexander of the New Radicals. Like Once, it’s about a male-female relationship that isn’t quite a love story, but in which the two characters really do come to care about each other. Complicated and dimensional and human, rather than just boy-meets-girl. I liked it, I liked the music, I recommend it.

But. How real is the music, how raw and unpolished, how–that word again–authentic. Because in Once, Hansard’s music really does feel, you know, all those things, genuine. Musical authenticity isn’t an issue in the film, it’s just what the film is. But Begin Again is directly and specifically about that issue, the issue about staying true to your art, keepin’ it real, selling-out vs. not-selling-out. Artistic integrity. It’s a movie about musical authenticity.

Okay, so Knightley plays a singer-songwriter, and her boyfriend, Dave, has just signed with a record label, and she’s in New York to support him in a girlfriendly sort of way, and so she even lies about the fact that most of the songs on his album were co-written by him with her. She doesn’t want the songwriting credit, she’s too thrilled for his success to care. And the label sends him to LA to re-record some tracks, and while there, he cheats on her. He’s a creep in other words. And we realize that the label is going to turn all his (and her) songs into conventional pop tracks, and spoil the, you know, passion, truth, real-ness of the work. And Dave, the cheatin’ creep is played by Adam Levine. Lead singer for Maroon Five. The definition of inauthentic bubble gum pop.

But so anyway she’s ready to take her broken heart and blow New York and go back to London. But her pal Steve (James Corden, the Baker in Into the Woods) takes her to a nightclub, and makes her get up on stage and perform, and she does, rather badly, sing one of her songs. But Mark Ruffalo (a newly fired record exec/drunk named Dan) hears her song, and knows, instantly, in his soul, that she’s got It, that she’s the real thing, that she’s the artist he’s been waiting for. Or rather, he hears the song as he would produce it; he hears, not her song, but what he could make of it. It’s a lovely scene: enjoy.

This leads to a conversation about musical authenticity, and he challenges her to name a genuinely authentic artist. ‘Bob Dylan,’ she says, and Ruffalo points out all the ways in which Dylan, with the sunglasses and the carefully tousled hair, is pose and artifice. Then she says ‘Randy Newman,’ and Ruffalo concedes that Randy Newman is indeed, in his own way, authentic.

It’s an issue that recurs throughout the movie. She hears creepo Dave’s album, and it seems overproduced. She and Dan decide to make her album, and record it on the streets of New York, with ambient noise in the background. See: more authentic. (Except we see how carefully Mark Ruffalo controls the street sounds, bribing street kids and asking for quiet). She downloads her album onto the internet instead of allowing the label to release it, and it sells like crazy. (Because she knows Cee Lo and he tweets about it).

The first rule of artistic representation is that portrayal does not equal advocacy. I don’t know the extent to which Carney intends his film to deconstruct the pose of artistic and musical authenticity and the extent to which he’s relying on it. I mean, the epitome of ‘integrity’ in this film is supposed to be Keira Knightley’s character. And she can sing, some; a smallish voice, but okay for this kind of music. But at least in Once, Glen Hansard was singing songs he, Glen Hansard, wrote and performed as a busker. In this movie, ‘authenticity’ is represented by songs performed by a movie star, written for her by someone else.

I’m not knocking Keira Knightley. I like her as an actress, I think she does a nice job in this film, and she can sing enough to pull off the role. I just loathe that entire issue of musical authenticity. We all know the drill: Neil Young good, Neil Diamond not good. Janis Joplin real, Karen Carpenter not real. Thumbs up: REM, thumbs down: Hootie and the Blowfish. Punk: good. Disco: not so much. (Wasn’t Sid Vicious essentially a sociopathic poseur? Does Donna Summer’s pain not count?)  What bothers me about it is that we’re imputing a moral stance to what is essentially an aesthetic judgment. As it happens, I like Neil Young and I like REM; I love Dylan too. But sell-out is too harsh a term to apply to anyone. I genuinely believe that most artists really are trying to use their art to say something cogent about the world they inhabit. Just that some folks have muses that are more commercially appealing. Luck, not sin.

And yet and yet. This scene, this song, is lovely. And yes, it’s inauthentic. Knightley singing a song someone wrote for her (like that’s a crime), Ruffalo pretending to play bass (acting, in other words), Hailee Steinfeld pretending to rock out on guitar (again, acting). I don’t care. I think it’s a terrific moment in a movie I liked a lot.

And that’s what we actually care about, isn’t it? Whether we like the music.

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