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The Singer-Songwriter Romances of John Carney: Once and Begin Again

Posted on | November 27, 2014 | Add Comments

Two musicians (	Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová) fall in love in OnceFor all their differences (in budget, star power, and setting), Once and Begin Again, both directed by John Carney, are remarkably similar. The two films each follow a singer-songwriter, post break-up, as they attempt to kickstart a music career, while bonding with a new friend/fellow musician/possible love interest. Do the two films prove Carney as the master of the modern musical? Seven years after it’s indie success, does Once stand up? And is Begin Again (now on DVD and available to rent) a promising follow-up?

You know the story of Once: a poor guitarist befriends a shy, Czech pianist and the two write songs and fall in love. It’s equally likely you’re familiar with the film’s success story: $150,000 indie manages to gross $1.9 million and win an Oscar. Watching the film for the first time, this year, I was surprised by all the acclaim for a enjoyable but modest film. While the songs (especially the beautiful “Falling Slowly”) are simply gorgeous, Once runs on humble charm rather than filmmaking expertise. It’s easy to see why audiences fell for the songs and the story, but Carney’s lack of directorial talent was too obvious for the film to work on me. Main problem: the over-used, almost infuriating shaky cinematography. Tim Flemming’s camerawork is rarely striking but constantly irritating; he moves the camera around so often, you get the sense he doesn’t know what to do with it. Carney’s script, meanwhile, is more premise than story but manages some raw, affecting moments of pure emotion. Luckily, leads Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová, clearly unprofessionals, have some honest chemistry (especially when they’re performing). Maybe the Broadway show, with more music and less wobbly camerawork, would impress me more.

Gretta (Keira Knightley) and Dan (Mark Ruffalo) record an album around NYC in Begin AgainBegin Again, meanwhile, takes the simple premise of Once and piles on more characters, subplots, and a layer of distinctly un-Dubline-like pop-star gloss. Gretta (Keira Knightley), heartbroken after her chart-topping guitarist boyfriend (Adam Levine) cheats on her, is a singer-songwriter who doesn’t quite know what do with her music. Then she meets a divorced, drunken producer (Mark Ruffalo), who convinces her to sign on for a record deal. The (laughable cutesy) twist? To make their album, they record around outdoor NYC locations. It’s all only slightly less predictable than you’d expect (like Once, the ending favors the bitter over the sweet). Light, amusing, and easy to please, with an undercurrent of heartache, things rarely stray far from a gentle, hopeful, hummable tone. The issue is there’s no “Falling Slowly” here, and Knightley’s singing skills are meager. It’s also hard to believe the plot, which assumes an irony-free, unoriginal folk-singer could make a splash in the era of EDM (electronic dance music). If you take the jump, however, you’ll enjoy some clever music industry quips, a satisfyingly disappointing ending, and Ruffalo’s likable turn as a failed father and once-great producer struggling against the music industry’s changing tides.

After two music-romances, you’d expect Carney to try something new… And you’d be wrong: Sing Street, slated for next year, will follow a Dublin boy as he starts a band in London. The film is currently in post-production, so it may be too late to offer advice but let’s hope the songs are memorable, the script not too predictable, and the camera steady. Or else I’ll just stay home listening to this.

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