The human desire to belong – to somewhere, to something, to someone – is an innate characteristic that I believe all of us possess. A desire that stems from, I think, our wish to leave a mark of our own on everything we touch and we are often majorly driven by that desire. To create an identity of our own – beyond what we have, beyond what we do and beyond what is already known about us – is a process that not everybody can dare to take because most of the time in this process, we get lost. So lost in the flurry of who we want to be that we cease to remember who we are at our core. After that, we either rediscover ourselves like we used to be and rejoice in the closure or end up being reborn as a self that we have to learn to love and accept from scratch – there seems to be no in-between. Even though either way it’s progress and of course the differences persist, this journey of progress is what John Carney’s musical comedy drama Begin Again took me through. With an unconventional yet exceptional main cast (Keira Knightley and Mark Ruffalo) and some prominent musicians as the supporting cast, like Adam Levine and Hailee Steinfeld, this film is deeply rooted in the various aspects of an identity crisis while being carved around the universal language of music in a genius way.
Gretta James (Keira Knightley) defines herself, mind, body and soul, by the music that she creates with her long-term boyfriend and creative partner Dave Kohl (Adam Levine), until a classic case of infidelity from him lands her in a bar in the lower east side of New York City. Now, this newly heartbroken singer-songwriter feels fundamentally lost, lonely and also on the verge of losing all hope. Meanwhile Dan Mulligan (Mark Ruffalo) is an ex-music producer desperately wanting to introduce and produce authentic music, caught in a failed marriage and attempting to rebuild a relationship with his insecure teenage daughter Violet (Hailee Steinfeld), who ultimately ends up seeking solace in alcohol. It is one such evening in the bar, when Gretta grudgingly performs a song with just her guitar – seething in anger, soaking in worthlessness, lacking any closure – and a very drunk Dan sitting in the same bar hears the music that he has been in search of, for the first time. As Gretta sings, baring her soul, Dan begins to visualise what her song could sound like with accompanying instruments and a studio-like production, and he immediately makes his mind up to convince her not to give up on her music. In fact, he offers to sign her with his former record label. Later, he takes matters into his own hands. He somehow convinces Gretta that they don’t really need a label and studio to make music, when they have all of New York to record songs in! Indeed, a very unprofessional, flawed and impulsive decision, yet they refuse to bow to any obstacle.
And thus two strangers, with nothing good going for them and only their passion for music to lean on, embark on a journey that means more to them than just making music. Yet all that matters to them is music itself – just like how we often need to find a bigger purpose just to remind ourselves how important our individual contributions towards it are; to remind ourselves to chase our dreams despite all odds because we are more than what we go through.
In Gretta, I don’t just see a lost, lonely, heartbroken musician trying to find herself through the only thing that has always made her empowered: her music. I also see a passionate woman graciously submitting herself to whatever she is feeling, trusting her music to heal her in a way only music can, and to a troubled nineteen-year-old like myself, Gretta is the personification of hope. In Dan, I don’t just see an eccentric alcoholic musician no longer lost in the maze of the kind of music that he wants to make; I also see a musician who just found the right direction of his life and now wants another to find it too. In him I see a determination to not let anything come between him and the muse that he found in Gretta’s music. A determination to keep up his hope, Gretta’s hope. And together, they experience a journey that doesn’t really lead them to “the” ending, but it does lead them to “an” ending that leaves them content and gives them the closure that lets them move on. The film reminded me that as long as I keep my passion alive I can always find my way back every time I am lost. And isn’t that what life is often about?
Disclaimer: This article has not been written by Film Companion’s editorial team.