Movie Review: Begin Again

After watching A Star is Born, I felt quite depressed and hopeless. What was the point of being a musician if it meant letting fame and fortune get to one’s head, causing the artist to lose touch with themselves in the process? I’m not saying the music industry is in any way to blame for substance abuse, but the stress of touring and parties can really stress some musicians out, especially if they are already dealing with substance abuse. I cried, thinking that was all the music industry had in store for me (even though a lot of classical musicians don’t get famous enough to lead those kinds of fame-filled lives).

With Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping, it made fun of the fame associated with being a pop musician, and believe me, I laughed (but of course, anything with Andy Samberg is going to tickle my funny bone). But then I asked myself, Is being a musician really just one big joke? I know not everyone ends up like that, but it got me thinking, once again: is there a way to be a successful musician if no one has discovered your musical talent until much later in life? Conner4Real (Samberg’s character) has had people telling him he would be a star since he was very young, and so he grew up thinking he would just be successful for the rest of his life, even if his songs got terrible reviews and he struggled with his ego.

But with Begin Again, I honestly can say that I felt refreshed. When it first came out in 2013, I thought about seeing it because it looked interesting, but never got around to seeing it. But then I finally decided I wanted to give it at shot, and I’m glad I waited to see it because had I seen it earlier, it probably wouldn’t have resonated with me as much. But now that I have been out of the league of constant performances and auditions for orchestras and have been deciding from scratch whether to go to music school, to teach lessons, to move to a big city and find my dreams there, or whatever else I was dreaming about with regards to music, watching Begin Again gave me a new perspective on what it meant to be a musician and still lead a happy fulfilling life.

Gretta is an introverted young woman who is also a gifted singer and songwriter, and she moves to New York City with her boyfriend and fellow musician, Dave. Dave gets signed to a major record label and leads her into this totally different life, one that she is not interested in. They move from their tiny apartment in the city to a fancy studio where Dave produces all his hits. Shortly after they move into the studio, Dave tries to convince Gretta to go on tour and produce the songs with him for their album, but she is more interested in just making music and not so much the glamour that comes with all of that. Dave heads to Los Angeles to work with some producers for his album, leaving Gretta to hang out with her friend, Steve, who also happens to be a struggling musician like Gretta. Dave comes back from Los Angeles and has Gretta listen to one of his tracks, but Gretta intuitively finds out Dave cheated on her for a girl on the record producing team in L.A. and leaves him. One night Steve, Gretta’s friend, encourages her to perform at a bar, and so Gretta reluctantly sings what turns out to be a beautiful song.

Dan, a record label executive with drinking problems, a bad relationship with his wife and daughter and a reluctance to change, can’t understand why the indie record label he manages with his college buddy, Saul, is allowing too many pop-sounding musicians to record for them. When Saul tells him he needs to just go with the changes in people’s tastes instead of close himself off from them, Dave gets upset and Saul fires him. With no money and no job, Dan goes to a bar, drunk and contemplating suicide. Then he hears Gretta perform and he suddenly envisions her performance as if she was in a real recording studio, with strings, keyboard, drums and a guitar to back her up. He offers her a record deal, but she refuses. She tells him that she makes music for herself, not to get famous, and he tries to convince her that the point of music is to share with other people, not just to play it for oneself. Dan gets an epiphany and realizes that unlike Dave, who is living the high-life and going on tour but not really feeling fulfilled in his music career, Gretta doesn’t have to live that life and can make wonderful music even before she gets signed to Dan’s record label. So he gathers a bunch of musicians who are willing to play music without pay, and has them, him, Steve and Gretta perform for the NYC public in parks, subways, in alleys, and on rooftops. When Dave asks Gretta to meet up with him, he realizes that she has moved on with her life and is no longer lonely without him, even when he tries to beg her to come back to him. She thankfully realizes that he’s not worth returning to not just because he cheated with another girl behind her back (and also panders to a crowd of other girls who swoon when they see him), but because she has charted her own music path with Dan and many other musicians who haven’t lived through the fame and getting signed to a label.

One interesting conversation happens towards the end of the film, and that is about how record sales work. At a meeting in the record label conference room, Saul listens to Gretta’s album and says he will hook up some producers in Los Angeles to listen to it so they can put it in some TV shows and films. Dan says he’s not interested and that he wants to get Gretta signed onto the label. Greta then asks how distribution of music works, and one of the folks at the meeting tells her that if a CD sells for 10 units, then the musician gets a dollar (“like selling a book for a buck”). Gretta rightfully asks why the musician gets only a dollar while the record label gets the other nine dollars. Saul chuckles and tells her that if she were to sign on to the label, the label would hire a producer to remix a couple of her tracks, then she would sell a hit record and then she would live the long and fulfilling music career of her dreams, but that because it was her album, it was her choice in the end whether or not she wanted to sign with the label. I was literally just watching this interview that Rob Markman did for digital media company Genius on a study that showed musicians only make 12% of revenue from the music industry, and how musicians have tried to navigate this, and where all the other money went to if not to the artist (the full interview is below):

This interview forced me to wake up to the reality that there is much more involved than just playing music when an artist is signed on to a record label, and it made me think of how in Begin Again, Dave’s number one dream was to record with a major record label. However, after he got his dream, he came back to Gretta and, when she asked him how his tour was, said it was incredibly grueling because he had to travel so much by himself. In the past he and Gretta just made music in their apartment, and they had that intimate space to just make beautiful songs, but when Dave got signed to the label, it totally changed him and Gretta’s relationship because he wasn’t around to be with her, and it especially changes the relationship they have with music. For Gretta, music is about honesty, but for Dave, music is a way to get famous. When they meet up in the park, he plays a recording he did in the studio of “Lost Stars,” which Gretta wrote for him when they were together. Gretta tells him that the song has lost its authenticity ever since he became famous and cheated on her with another woman. This reminds me of A Star is Born, when Ally doesn’t want to lose her identity when she becomes famous, and Jackson accuses her of becoming someone she’s not when Interscope Records signs her. It also reminds me of Big Eyes because Margaret Keane was this woman who just wanted to paint as a means of catharsis, but her husband, Walter, wanted to sell out. Margaret tells him that she wants to be honest instead of focused on fame when she paints, but Walter tells her that no one really cares about honesty.

Begin Again helped me better understand that musicians don’t have to sign a major record deal to be successful, and that musicians can find their own path even when they aren’t famous. Dan had a long successful music career, helping sign several artists and winning Grammy Awards left and right, but in the end, he was human and had his own battles to deal with. Dave got famous, and yet he was incredibly lonely on tour and got sad when he listened to Gretta’s voicemail. Gretta, although not well-known, found her own happiness and Dan also came to understand himself that what’s really important are the friendships you make along the way, not so much the money or the status. And this movie also taught me to be open to change; I had these wild dreams at one point that I was going to either get signed on to or work for a major record label in LA or NYC. But then I did some more self-reflection and after watching movies like A Star is Born, Popstar and Begin Again, I think I can figure out an alternative career path for my music, one that doesn’t necessarily fit the stereotype of how musicians should be. I would of course love to do a lot more with my music, but I also don’t want to lose my love for it, and I sometimes worry that having a career in music would make me stop loving it. I know this is silly thinking, but after seeing Begin Again, I feel a lot better about where my love of music is going to take me. Seeing Gretta and Dan bounce back from their struggles and chart their own music path has inspired me to keep an open mind about my music career, instead of doing what I have done for the past two years and keeping a one-track-mindset of “I need to be this kind of musician by blah-blah-date.” Of course, having a plan for your career helps, but Greta and Dan inspired me to think outside the box and experiment with other styles of music.

I honestly wouldn’t mind seeing this film again so I can remind myself to be patient and not feel any less of a musician just because I haven’t signed on to a major record label (or any record label). Really excellent and inspiring film. Also, seeing the violinist and cellist in Gretta’s band made my day! 🙂 I am definitely open to playing more than just classical, so maybe playing in a band of some sorts while holding down a day job would be an option. Also I just really enjoyed the cast; I love all the actors and musicians who starred in this film, especially Keira Knightley and Mark Ruffalo! 🙂

Here’s the trailer for Begin Again:

Begin Again. 2013. Rated R for language.

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