Musicians fill filmmaker John Carney's Begin Again

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Unless you were there, it’s hard to grasp the revolutionary impact of the music video in the ’80s. Filmmaker John Carney was a teenager in Dublin at the time, and he lights up at the memory of dropping 50 pence into the video jukebox at a local “chipper” and seeing the latest three-minute masterpiece by pioneers like Godley & Creme or Tim Pope. He also appreciates that we were watching a reflection of an industry at the historic height of its decadence.

“Those guys had loads of money, they were all from the advertising world, and the record label just gave them a wad of cash and said, ‘Go and make a Duran Duran video,’ ” says Carney, calling the Straight from New York. “So you have this pretentious English commercial director who had just seen, like, The Third Man, but he’s a big drunk in Barbados or the Caribbean shooting a video. That’s how they were made. There’s a really funny mixture of pretentiousness, drug abuse, and affluence.”

Fun as it is to reminisce (the clip for “Two Tribes” by Frankie Goes to Hollywood was a personal fave for the writer-director), Carney’s new film Begin Again hinges on the fallout from the same industry in its steep post-Internet decline. Keira Knightley is a no-compromise singer-songwriter in the New York–based drama, opening Friday (July 11), whose encounter with a down-on-his-luck former label head (Mark Ruffalo) opens up new possibilities for both of them. But the tension between art and commerce is a constant one, and it’s only exaggerated by the sudden and dizzying success of her ex-boyfriend and former writing partner (played with credible self-awareness by Maroon 5’s Adam Levine).

Carney himself was a major-label musician when he played with Ireland’s the Frames in the ’90s and, like his musically themed Oscar winner Once, Begin Again is filled with a lot of his own inside-bass-ball. There are musicians all over the damn place, for one thing, including Mos Def and CeeLo Green.

“I like musicians but I don’t have any particular agenda with them replacing actors or anything like that,” Carney says with a laugh. “I think it’s nice to put real people in films. A real person, a nonactor, a musician—this is going to be their movie. That’s a great buzz on set. Adam—it was infectious just how much he enjoyed the process of making a film. It was good for the movie.”

Given Carney’s own feelings about the old music-biz model (“It was horrible”), viewers might notice some of the film’s more subtle jabs at the fate of artistry when it’s being nurtured inside a corporate boardroom. The director’s warm sense of humour adds a soft touch, meanwhile. Look to Levine’s vaguely ludicrous beard for the evidence.

“His beard is one of those beards you grow when people become famous for the first time. They think they’ll become Jim Morrison or they that they’re expressing their identity because they’re so busy doing what they’re doing they didn’t really notice a beard, it just sort of happened,” he says, with a hint of venom. Sounds personal! “I’ve had some facial hair since I was able to grow facial hair,” Carney continues, “but now you got all these guys coming along and growing beards, and it pisses me off because I own my beard. I worked long and hard at it. They think they can just come along and be a beard guy suddenly.”

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