Music and Breakups have been together since Samson and Delilah. It’s an amicable pairing. They complement each other perfectly— Mr. Music is the soothing savior to Ms. Breakup’s destructive rage. The duo are like two peas in a pod and nothing will break them apart. Pints of coffee ice-cream and rebound make-out sessions with strangers may briefly catch Ms. Breakup’s eye and distract her, but in the end she’ll always come back to her one true staple when she needs to feel better— music.
The louder the better, the greater the anthem. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.
Who hasn’t, in the midst of relationship destruction, turned to Beyonce’s “Irreplaceble” as a pick me up? Or Alanis Morissette’s “You Oughta Know”, Adele’s “Someone Like You”, or Carly Simon’s “You’re So Vain”? Whatever your fancy, music and breakups go hand in hand. They always have. The music industry can thank relationship blunders for 90% of their songs and 90% of their profits. The two “just get each other.”
Director John Carney (Once) understood this eternal pairing of music and breakups very well, which is exactly why his latest film, Begin Again—a break-up movie/musical—manages to hit all the right notes.
In the film, Greta (Keira Knightley) has just broken up with her soon-to-be-famous boyfriend of five years, David Kohl (Adam Levine). The two were a talented writing duo, but David has chosen fame (and a hot assistant at his label) over her. After a friend drags Greta on stage to sing one of her own songs at an open mic night in NYC, she catches the eye of Dan (Mark Ruffalo), a “former” music exec equally down on his luck. Dan decides Greta is the next big thing and to get the attention of his label that has lost faith in him, the two begin work on an outdoor album recorded in myriad locations throughout the city. For Greta and Dan both, this opportunity is a much-needed fresh start sure to reap leagues and leagues of benefits.
Cue the folky/pop music.
Break-up movies are easy to mess up in the same way that romantic movies are. Too many feelings. Too many opportunities for cheesy lines. Too many opportunities for sappy tears, cliché “just dumped” boxes of his junk, and sloppy rebounds. But the biggest hurdle to cross is that romance and breakups are about feelings—the good, the bad, and the ugly—and depicting these emotions on film without simply telling the audience how the characters feel in a string of sappy clichés is the challenge. Movies need to show and not tell. We don’t want to see the characters whine, but we want to understand why they might be whining without having to sit through their blubbery tantrum.
Thankfully, with Begin Again, Carney has expertly found a way to have us perfectly understand what the characters are thinking and feeling without them having to tell us—he makes them tell us through song.
The characters are songwriters. It’s perfect! It’s fool-proof. All the things Greta would confide in a sappy monologue she can now perform—the words she sings are the truths she’s feeling. And it’s not melodramatic. And it’s not driven into us until we’re forced to get it—we just get it. We get what she’s feeling. We get what she’s thinking about. We get where she’s headed next. We understand because of the words she sings and the ways in which she sings them.
The most satisfying moment in the film where this happens is when Greta comes home to discover that David has just won some sort of “Best New Artist” award. His image is plastered all over youtube and he thanks his adoring fans for their support. Naturally, Greta reacts by throwing back some whiskey and writing a song. The next shot we see is of her iphone, duct-taped to a pole like a mic, and David Kohl’s name on the front of the iphone screen. And then she starts singing. She pours out her heart, telling him everything she’d wanted to say but didn’t get the chance to—in a simple, succinct ballad sent straight to his voicemail.
And we get it. We get exactly what she’s thinking, what she’s doing, and how far she’s come with this drunken act of defiance. It hits us like a gust of stale subway air blowing up our dress and exposing us— exposing us to the vulnerability and the truth of the act we’ve all lived before. Because we’ve all had times where we’d kill for this moment. The chance to say what you need to say to the one who did you wrong in a way that is neither dramatic, crazy, or desperate. We never have to shake our head at Greta’s behavior or slap ourselves on the wrist for having done the same thing ourselves. We’re neither embarrassed for her, or uncomfortable, or cringing at the cheesiness that other, lesser movies may have created. We just get it, without Greta having to speak a word.
In this way, the complicated situation of a breakup becomes simple, pure, manageable, and easy to deconstruct despite its apparent complexities. And the perfect pairing of music and breakups gets us there seamlessly.