John Carney’s ‘Begin Again’ is a musical film that revolves around a record label executive named Dan Mulligan struggling with the changes in the music industry and an independent singer-songwriter named Gretta James. As the two together find their way around identity and music, a new chapter begins in their personal and professional lives. The romantic drama features Keira Knightley (Gretta), Mark Ruffalo (Dan), Adam Levine (Dave), and James Corden (Steve) at its helm.
‘Begin Again’ continues to be counted amongst the best feel-good and genuinely well-written musical romances of the 21st century. Musicians — budding or veteran — can immediately relate to the concerns of Dan, Gretta, and even Gretta’s fame-obsessed boyfriend, Dave. Due to its realistic premise and detailed awareness of the ins and outs of the music industry, many wonder whether ‘Begin Again’ is based on a true story. Let’s dive right in and find out!
Is Begin Again Based on a True Story?
No, ‘Begin Again’ is not based on a true story. However, the movie’s realistic premise can be attributed to Carney’s own experiences and observations of the music industry, which are peppered across the fictional story of Gretta and Dan. In the early 1990s, Carney played in and toured with the influential Irish rock band The Frames.
Carney is also closely familiar with the personalities, backgrounds, and workings of executives from record labels in the 1980s and 1990s. He and producer Judd Apatow thus used their own experiences with musicians to detail the movie. “We would have long telephone conversations from Dublin to Los Angeles, just chatting about stories we knew about people in bands,” said the director.
When Dan, with his vintage Jaguar car and constant references to classic musicians, teams up with Gretta, a talented but freshly heartbroken singer from England, we see the magic of music and New York. In fact, Knightley claimed that New York is almost its own character in the film. Carney himself stated, “For me, the dream place for music was always New York.” He added, “[In the film] You see a New York that’s actually recognizable, as someone who just walks around the city.”
In Dan and Gretta, we see the blueprints of a classic but burnt-out 1990s record executive and a fresh-faced, bold-hearted young musician, respectively. As the duo goes around the city recording songs, the musical histories of America and Britain come to life. It is this realism, presented through music new and old, that solidifies the authenticity of ‘Begin Again.’
In fact, the scenes with Dave trying to confess his feelings to Gretta using a song have some basis in the director’s personal experiences. “Like all women, my girlfriend is like a highly trained spy and can decipher in the mere fluctuations of my voice, not to mind my lyric writing, what I’ve been thinking or what I’ve been doing,” confessed Carney. “So the idea is that, in the relationship, the Gretta character sort of figures out that her boyfriend is trying to tell her something in kind of a code in the lyrics of the song, whether consciously or unconsciously.”
The relationship between Gretta and Dave is quite convincing in its portrayal of the commonalities and differences that dictate a musician couple. It also beautifully highlights how music becomes a part of people’s love language. “If I play a song, you know like on a guitar, to my girlfriend, she’ll be like ‘Did you meet a cute girl? Is that song about me?’” Carney quips.
Ruffalo was drawn to the movie because of his own brief stint with music in the past. Moreover, he appreciated Carney’s ‘Once,’ an Irish movie about two struggling musicians who communicate through songs, help each other heal from their past traumas, and rediscover their passion for music. “This [‘Begin Again’] felt like real people. At the same time, it’s pretty romantic. And I also thought it was comedic. And there’s the music as well,” said Ruffalo.
‘Begin Again’ employs several well-established movie tropes but with its own gentle twists. In particular, consider the scene in which Dan hears a reluctant Gretta sing on stage to a mostly uninterested audience at a local bar. “It’s a play on the traditional movie musical scene where somebody hears something wonderful, and it’s clear to us that something amazing is happening. But I wanted to strip that back, and have the record producer, who’s played here by Mark Ruffalo, hear something that other people are missing,” Carney highlighted.
The iconic scene where Dan and Gretta share an iPod and their music, is derived from Carney’s personal life. “In Dublin, the bells ring out at midnight in Christ Church Cathedral. About 11:30, I grabbed two pairs of headphones and a splitter, and my girlfriend and I had this beautiful, uplifting walk through town, going from Frank Sinatra to some obscure ’80s band to Joy Division and Stevie Wonder, smiling like an idiot,” he stated.
One of the most authentic elements of the movie is that the two protagonists do not fall in love but instead help each other through their friendship and musical bonding. ‘Begin Again’ thus demonstrates the redeeming power of genuine companionship and music. “John Carney is Irish, and he has that Catholic kind of sensibility. I think he’s playing with that, and with the redemptive qualities of those beliefs,” opined Ruffalo.
Movies like ‘A Star is Born,’ ‘La La Land,’ and ‘Pure Country’ also explore the strong connection between music, companionship, communication, and self-discovery. Despite not being a real story, ‘Begin Again’ manages to authentically portray the world of spirited musicians and troubled individuals fighting their way towards personal and professional happiness. The movie certainly reminds one that it’s always possible to start over, to begin again.
Read More: Best Keira Knightley Movies