Rated R. Running time: 1 hour 40 min.
Our content ratings (0-10): Violence 1; Language 4; Sex/Nudity 2.
Our star ratings (0-5): 5
Save me, O God,
for the waters have come up to my neck.
I sink in deep mire,
where there is no foothold;
I have come into deep waters,
and the flood sweeps over me.
I am weary with my crying;
my throat is parched.
My eyes grow dim
with waiting for my God.
Psalm 69: 1-3
If music producer Dan (Mark Ruffalo) were a praying man, he might have found comfort in the words of the psalmist. Earlier in the day he had been kicked out of the record company he had helped found with his co-owner and lifelong pal Saul (Yasiin Bey, a.k.a. Mos Def). Saul and the other execs want to back music currently popular, whereas Dan seems to have lost his ability to spot and develop new talent. Leaving the company offices in an angry huff, at this low point in his career, he turns to alcohol rather than the Bible.
Drowning his sorrows in booze, he comes close to ending it all in a subway station, but instead wanders into the little folk club where a street singer named Steve (James Corden) is finishing a song. Earlier Steve had given shelter to his long-time British friend Gretta (Keira Knightley) whose boyfriend and musical partner Dave had just betrayed her. That night he coaxes her into coming with him to the club. He invites her to come up and sing, but she is in no mood to perform. He and the audience persist, so she sullenly picks up a guitar and starts performing the sad “Step You Can’t Take Back:”
“So you find yourself at the subway
with your world in a bag by your side
and all at once what seemed like a good way
you realize is the end of the line,
For what it’s worth…
Here comes the train upon the track
There goes the pain, it cuts to black
Are you ready for the last act?
To take a step you can’t take back …”
The audience didn’t come for such soul-searching music, so their attention drifts back to their drinks and conversations. Dan, however, is mesmerized, instantly coming out of his stupor. Having been down in the subway and very much tempted to do what the person in the song might do, he instantly connects with the song and its lyrics. His mind working in musical arranger mode, he orchestrates the ballad in his mind. We see and hear drums, bass, keyboards, and violins come to life behind Greta, so we can now appreciate what a potentially great performer she could become with the right guidance.
After her gig Dan introduces himself, but she is in such a funk that she pays him little heed, even when he gives her his card. To her in his disheveled state he looks like a homeless man. She intends to stick to her plan to return to her home in England. She has spent years in America with Dave Kohl (Adam Levine) as lover, songwriter, and singing partner, but when a record company gave him his big break and sent him off to L.A. without her, he had started an affair with a female staff member. Greta discovers this when Dave, returning from the West Coast, plays for her his new love song “Higher Place.” Listening intently, Greta realizes that the woman in the song was not her. After a brief argument she quickly gathered up a few possessions and walked out.
So, as Greta and Dan part, there is just that business card connecting them. What happens next leads to their collaborating guerilla style to produce an album of her songs.
Refused by his former partner to provide production money for a studio, Dan is able to secure funds from successful hip-hop artist Troublegum (CeeLo Green), still grateful for Dan’s launching him on his career. With this they hire back-up musicians, and in an alley, on a rooftop with the Empire State Building as a backdrop, in Washington Square Park, as well as in Central Park, and even in a subway station, they set up shop and quickly record a number. Sometimes they have to hastily take down the equipment and flee before the cops can catch up with them.
The alley recording scene is especially enjoyable, because Dan has to pay some kids at the other end of the alley to keep quiet. Then when they come to observe, he gets them to sing one of the choruses. In another session Dan has engaged his daughter Violet (Hailee Steinfeld) to join the band, her guitar solo climaxing the song and wowing everyone, proving that during her funk over the absence of her dad she had not been wasting her time.
Indeed, this sub-theme of father-daughter relationship is wonderfully handled in the film. Dan’s ex-wife Miriam (Catherine Keener) wants Dan to become more involved in Violet’s life, but hitherto he has been too wrapped up in his music business to do so. He now picks her up at school, but she is at the age where her resentment at his neglect is stronger than her former desire to connect with her father. He had not even been aware of her guitar practice. It is at this point that Greta enters the picture, becoming an important influence on the girl.
Greta learns of Violet’s interest in the boy at school who won’t give her the time of day. Telling her that the short-shorts she insists on wearing to school (her attire had bothered Dan) were not the way to draw someone for a serious relationship, she takes the girl shopping for more appropriate clothing. She also is the one who notices Violet’s guitar playing and suggests to Dan that the girl be included on one of the tracks. It soon becomes obvious that Dan will become much closer to his family, and we wonder if he will be torn romantically between his young protégé and his ex-wife.
Director/writer John Carney, who also gave us the musically themed Once, refuses to follow the usual romantic arc favored by lesser Hollywood filmmakers. It even looks like Greta might go back to Dave. She had called and left on his voice mail the break-up song “Like a Fool,” revealing both her heartbreak and her determination that she would survive it. This had made him aware of what a treasure he had given up, so he meets with her to apologize and ask for a second chance. During this meeting on a bench she realizes how different their values are when they discuss his over-arranged version of one of her simple songs “Lost Stars.”
He says, “I wanted to turn it (the song) into a hit.”
She replies, “Why?”
He answers that this is necessary in order to sell the song to the public, and she replies that that her goal as a songwriter is not racking up sales. Her passion lies in the joy of creating the music. He invites her to his show so she can hear the new arrangement, but she is noncommittal. The remainder of the film builds to its climax. What will she decide to do?
John Carney’s newest film might be regarded by some as a musical fairytale, but it is so enchanting that chances are you will be completely swept along by it—at least I was. I loved his Once, also about musicians and the creative process, and I love this one even more. Partly, I suspect, because he takes us to so many delightful sites that I love in Manhattan—and then his cameraman Yaron Orbach photographs these scenes in such vivid colors —copies of this film ought to be bought up by NYC’s tourist department and sent out as a marketing tool!
The music is very listenable, both Keira Knightley and Adam Levine delivering their songs with conviction. Gregg Alexander of the New Radicals wrote most of the songs, and the scene in which Dan and Greta walk through Manhattan listening while linked by shared ear pods to their play lists of their favorite old standards, which include “Luck Be A Lady,” “For Once in My Life,” “Somebody2Love,” and “As Time Goes By” is movie magic!
The film opened at film festivals entitled “Can a Song Save Your Life?” This is thematically appropriate in that Greta’s initial song does bring a new lease on life to the depressed Dan. However, the new title is probably better, even though it is more generic. Both Dan and Greta begin new lives. He had entertained the thought of ending his life beneath a subway train, and she had decided to give up her dream of a musical career in America and go back to England.
To return to that brief subway scene in which an evangelical Christian had handed a tract to Dan, no doubt the word “Repent” was included in one of the first sentences of the little folder. “Repent” is a translation of the Greek word “metanoia,” found in the first message of Jesus (see Mark 1:14-15). Literally it means “change one’s mind,” to turn around”—and yes, “begin again” could be a loose translation of it. That is just what Dan and Greta do. And it is part of the satisfaction of watching this engaging film that the direction in which they turn, in which they begin again, is a bit unexpected. This is a film from which one walks away feeling good about the lives of those with whom you have spent a couple of hours, and maybe also about your own.
The version of this review with reflection/discussion questions will be in the August issue of Visual Parables. Go to the Visual Parables Store to see how you can subscribe.