My wife Jan and I treated ourselves to a movie date last week at one of the way-too-many megaplex movie theater complexes in the Megatropolis where we live, collectively known as the Tri-State Area, the Mega Complexity Capitol of the World. Going to a movie theater is something that we rarely do anymore, for several of what we consider to be very good reasons. The first of these concerns an ancient concept known as “value for the dollar.” Since we are both Seniors, we are as adamant as a people can be about value for our dollar; one of the requirements for being accepted into the Senior Fraternity is a willingness to utter the phrase “Do you give a senior discount?” as often as humanly possible during the course of a typical day. My wife is better at this than I am; but I am learning. We managed to score the Senior Discount at the theater, which, for an early afternoon showing on a Friday came to only ten dollars each, instead of the non-Senior rate of $14. Add on another $20 for an unusually small popcorn and a significantly small soda (no Senior discount at the snack stand), though, and it makes $40 movie dates rather a luxury for the likes of us. (Jesus! What do they charge for medium-rare steak and a medium-sized glass of pinot noir at these places?)
Then there is the issue of people talking during movies; this was one of the main reasons why we stopped going to the movies ten or so years ago. Gratefully, there were only eight people total at this particular showing, so unwanted talking turned out to be a non-issue. Another rather annoying concept in megaplex movie theaters these days is one of which I had been unaware. The film was scheduled to begin at 2:10, and we were in our seats by about 1:55. For the next fifteen minutes we were deluged with commercials for a variety of products and services in which, at my age, I have little or no interest; the kind of commercials one would expect to be subject to if one was watching so-called free TV. One certainly did not expect to have to pay $20 (not counting the high-priced, low-volume snacks) for the privilege of watching TV-type commercials in a megaplex which I could have viewed at home, for free, had I the inclination. But there you are. When 2:10 finally rolled around, it seemed like hours later, the previews of coming attractions portion of the show commenced; fully another 15 or 20 minutes of these ensued before the actual movie began at around 2:30. I know that, as an ornery, cranky Senior, refined folk have learned not to pay me much mind, but is anyone besides me annoyed at this alarming trend? I hope so.
Fortunately, though, the movie was very nearly worth the ordeal. Written and directed by Irish filmmaker John Carney, and starring Keira Knightley and Mark Ruffalo, this film debuted in 2013 at the Toronto International Film Festival under the awkward and unwieldy title Can a Song Save your Life? but was released theatrically this July as Begin Again. Ruffalo plays a down-and-out (and recently out of work) music producer who, while sitting on a subway platform in a drunken stupor contemplating suicide, decides instead to have one more drink before making up his mind. He walks into a nearby bar at the same moment that Knightley’s character, a young British songwriter-to-be, who was recently dumped by her obnoxious American rockstar boyfriend (adeptly played by American rocker Adam Levine), has very reluctantly stepped upon a small stage to perform an original composition. Though there are several instruments behind her, the band has taken a break, so she eases timidly into her song, while accompanying herself on an acoustic guitar. Her voice, though pleasant, is unremarkable and reed-thin, and she loses the crowd almost before the song has begun. Except for Ruffalo who, hearing her tiny voice amid the bar clatter, looks up to see this pretty but sad, intimidated girl singing what-is-left-of-her-heart out.
As he watches and listens, more and more intently, something strange, unexpected and wonderful starts to happen. The other instruments on the bandstand begin coming to life, one by one. First the hi-hat from the drum kit starts setting the beat; it is followed quickly by the piano; then the drumsticks come alive; soon the soulful cello emerges; and shortly thereafter, a sweet violin. Finally the entire bandfull of instruments is playing, sans musicians, behind her. Of course the only people who are of aware of this phantom orchestra are the Ruffalo character, and the eight of us in the theater that afternoon for the 2:10 showing. His music-producer instincts have kicked in, thereby giving a nearly perfect, though spontaneous, arrangement to Keira’s sad song of lost love, regret, and the virtually unbearable drudgery of moving on with one’s life, alone. The song, “A Step You Can’t Take Back,” is a revelation, as Mark’s character envisions it—to him, to us, and, before very long, to Knightley’s character as well. Up to this point, a good fifteen or so minutes into the film, I wasn’t at all sure I liked Begin Again. But the unadulterated magic and emotional crescendo generated by this remarkable scene grabbed me by the heart and refused to let go.
This is the kind of scene that remains somewhere in a corner of one’s mind long after much of the rest of the film has vacated. The reason for this is, I think, because it reveals something vitally important about the characters involved, thereby pulling us far deeper into their lives than the mere process of filmmaking alone can accomplish. The scene, and the film itself, is at its core about two disparate people who meet by chance for one exquisite moment in time. And that moment is the very one during which each person gets from the other exactly what he/she desperately needs to make them whole again, if only until the next life crisis descends. This is the stuff of art: that quality of a film, or painting, or book, or piece of music which transcends craft, vaulting the work onto a higher plane.
And it certainly helps, in film, if you have actors like Keira Knightley and Mark Ruffalo at your disposal. While I think that they are both very good actors, I would stop short of calling them great, at least for now. But they each possess qualities of likeability and sincerity, which elevate the occupation of acting and which, I believe, are quite rare in the profession as a whole. Of course I know neither Keira Knightley nor Mark Ruffalo, but I have come to know them a little bit, I think, through their work. They both seem to be genuinely good people, whose talents enable them to take on a variety of roles and make each one their own. Mark has a quiet passion (not so quiet in this role, though) which shines through always. This is also true of Knightly. And I get the distinct impression with Keira, that she does not consider herself particularly beautiful (though she may be loath to say as much to the numerous filmmakers and beauty product manufacturers who line up tirelessly in an effort to acquire her professional services). I somehow think that she may identify more with the characters she portrayed in films like Bend it Like Beckham and the Pirates of the Caribbean series, than she does with the many beauties she has portrayed in all those romantic costume dramas.
It also helps if you have a writer/director like John Carney at the helm. While I don’t know a lot about Carney, I know for sure that one of his other films had a very similar effect on me. A few years ago, my wife Jan told me about a TV interview she had seen with Russell Crowe, in which the actor was asked what his favorite movie was. Rather than mentioning one of his own, which was probably the interviewer’s intent, he quickly answered, “Once.” Now, neither Jan nor I had ever heard of this film, so, of course we Googled it. Turned out that Once was an obscure, very low-budget, little film, written and directed by John Carney, which chronicled the professional and personal relationship between musicians Glen Hansard and his sometime collaborator, Marketa Irglova, who both play versions of themselves in the movie. Here, again, a song (rather a collection of them) almost literally saves the lives of the two protagonists. (Though Once remains a largely unseen film, as a play it is enjoying a hugely successful run on Broadway, having won eight Tony Awards, including Best Musical, in 2012.) In Once, as in Begin Again, the two main characters share a kind of love which, though ultimately unfulfilled, makes each of them a better person for their connection than either could possibly have been had their paths never crossed. Is this not the unmitigated essence of love, at the quantum level? I think it is.
So can a song, in fact, save your life? Well, it literally did for Mark Ruffalo’s character in Begin Again, and did, as well, for Knightley’s character, if in a more metaphorical way. Such is also the case with the two main characters in that other Carney film and play, Once. Hansard plays a thirtyish busker (street musician) in Dublin, whose life is going nowhere. Irglova is a young Czech flower girl, who is attracted to his music and strikes up a conversation with him, saying that she, too, is a musician. They go to a music store where she sometimes plays piano and he performs one of his songs, “Falling Slowly,” for her. She is so enamored with the song (which, incidentally, won Best Original Song at the 2007 Academy Awards) and encourages him to seriously pursue his music. They begin writing songs together and eventually form a band with other buskers to record their music; Hansard’s character has reestablished his resolve to make his mark in the music industry. The two eventually part ways—he to go back to a former girlfriend in London, where his music career awaits; and she, with her young daughter, to reunite with her estranged husband, who has agreed to move to Dublin. Lives preserved, if not literally saved.
In his rock epic “American Pie,” about the deaths of rock-and-roll pioneers Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and The Big Bopper in a plane crash, Don McLean writes, “Now do you believe in rock and roll; Can music save your mortal soul?” While I’m not sure about music’s effect on mortal souls, I do know of at least one song that apparently has literally saved numerous lives. The Bee Gees’ classic disco anthem called, appropriately, “Stayin’ Alive,” is used in many CPR courses to teach the proper cadence for administering chest compressions to unconscious persons. “Ah, ha, ha, ha, stayin’ alive, stayin’ alive. Ah, ha, ha, ha, stayin’ alive…”