In just two films, writer/director John Carney may very well have created a new genre: the neo-musical. First, there was 2006’s Once, a breakout indie film with an Oscar-winning song, “Falling Slowly.” Now he follows a similar plot trajectory with Begin Again (which was once wistfully titled Can a Song Save Your Life?).
Two musicians – one male and one female – meet, collaborate on a project and flirt with impunity before ultimately deciding they would rather make music than love. Through his stories about musicians and collaboration, Carney has found a way to update the musical to our contemporary, authenticity-driven times. In his films, the characters frequently break into song, but they don’t break the fourth wall, and the stories never devolve into spectacle.
However, Carney has more on his mind than genre-busting. Both of his neo-musicals contain a creeping criticism of a music industry that is depicted as overly-focused on image and provides little room for the true artist to find space to grow. In Once, the characters are working to create a demo so that they can get a record deal, but the implicit question asked by the film is why a singer as talented as Glen Hansard has to make ends meet by busking on the street in the first place (in real life Hansard fronts The Frames, a successful Irish rock band).
If Once’s industry criticism is subtextual, Begin Again is more overt about its intentions. The film stars Mark Ruffalo and Keira Knightley as Dan and Greta, a music producer and singer-songwriter who collaborate on an independent album, but both characters bear the scars of their run-ins with the commerce side of art. Ruffalo plays a disgraced record executive who has been kicked off of his own label for his inability to adapt to the times; in an early scene, he criticizes a popular idea of having one of his label’s artists record a “commentary track” for their latest work. Now, he is separated from his wife and veering dangerously close to full-blown alcoholism. Worse still, he hasn’t signed a band in seven years and has lost his creative inspiration.
Greta’s exposure to the industry comes through her boyfriend Dave, who hits it big with songs that they co-wrote before ditching her for a girl who works at his label. In an obvious but effective casting decision, Dave is played by Adam Levine of Maroon 5 and TV’s The Voice. Levine gives a quietly sympathetic performance, but we still hate him. Greta may have been able to forgive his infidelity but not his eagerness to conform to the industry machine. The real back-breaker in their relationship is when he turns her low-key folk song – the beautiful “Lost Stars” – into something that sounds like, well, Maroon 5.
Because of their mutual disillusionment with the industry, Greta and Dan are a match made in indie heaven. They get together to record their album live all over the city – using the NYC ambient noise as atmosphere – and the guerilla plot jives well with Carney’s naturalistic style and the raw performances (Ruffalo in particular is excellent as man who comes back from the edge of a breakdown).
The only problem – and it’s a big one – is the music.
Greta’s songs (composed for the film by Hansard and The New Radicals’ Gregg Alexander) are exactly the kind of safe, easy listening tunes that the film claims to decry. Greta sounds more like someone you would hear at Starbucks than the edgy, independent artist the film claims she is. They are not bad songs – some of them are quite good – but their commercial nature severely undercuts the film’s criticism of the industry.
If Carney really wants to send a message to the music industry, he needs to make a film about rock and roll. Not only would a film about rock be more in keeping with his indie aesthetic, it is a genre that the industry has almost completely rejected. Thus, focusing on rock would be the best way to criticize pre-fab label machinations. A million obituaries have been written for rock ‘n’ roll, but consider just how dead the genre really is: not a single song on Billboard’s current Top 40 could reasonably be considered rock. There are bands that look like rock stars – American Authors and 5 Seconds of Summer, for example – but their sound is pure pop and contains only the faintest, most diluted hint of the rebellious, counter-cultural spirit that rock was founded on.
And this is the problem. Rock lost its authenticity a long time ago, so it does not lend itself to the preferred themes of a Carney neo-musical. The two most recent successful rock films – 2000’s Almost Famous and 2003’s School of Rock – both treat the genre as an anachronism. The former actually took place back in one of rock’s golden ages, the 1970s, while the rock-obsessed lead character of the latter is depicted as a relic and has to literally teach the younger generation what rock and roll is.
Same goes for Rock of Ages, the adaptation of the Broadway jukebox musical featuring hair metal hits from the likes of Journey and Def Leppard. The film was an unqualified bomb, which will likely make studio executives nervous about green-lighting any rock-oriented properties in the future, but the spectacle of Broadway is notoriously tricky to adapt to the screen (look no further than Clint Eastwood’s Jersey Boys for proof).
Carney has the ability to re-imagine a genre that was integral to the American identity of the latter half of the 20th century, and, while the industry may balk at the notion, it’s clear that the audience for a rock film still exists. Currently, many grown-up music fans are celebrating the 50th anniversary of the first really great rock movie – 1964’s A Hard Day’s Night, Richard Lester’s wickedly funny take on The Beatles, featuring The Beatles.
There is no reason that those same fans wouldn’t line up to see and hear Carney re-imagine rock in a gritty but pleasing urban fairy tale. Not only would it be a better fit for Carney’s filmmaking tendencies, it could even re-invigorate the industry’s interest in the genre. Along with all of Elvis Presley’s movies, A Hard Day’s Night proved that the movies could help build the culture of rock and roll. Maybe now they can help bring it back.