Freeze Frame #166: Begin Again

There’s a lovely scene in Begin Again when a drunk Mark Ruffalo first hears Keira Knightley singing at a bar. You get the usual reaction shots at first — from a bleary-eyed “What am I listening to?” to a more awake “Oh, this is good”. But then…

See, Keira is just sitting on a stool with a guitar and singing solo– there’s a bunch of musical instruments lying behind her. But as the second stanza begins, you see Mark looking at the cymbals, then the piano, the drums and the other instruments, and they start playing by themselves in the background. Suddenly, what was a just nice tune now begins to sound like a polished product. And I have to say, the song does sound much better.

Consider this: you have a character who is supposed to be a down-on-his-luck record producer listening to a new singer and seeing… promise, a chance at redemption and glory, whatever. This setup is old as the hills. But usually, when you show a wizened veteran discovering a rookie, how do you get the audience to understand how good he is? Most filmmakers go with one of the following options:

  1. Play it low-key, and reveal the veteran’s talent slowly. When you’re dealing with coaches and the like, this is a tough thing to do in a manner that is relatable.
  2. Use expository dialogue: get other people to talk about how great a guy he used to be.
  3. Cast a big star in the veteran’s role, so that the audience automatically substitutes star power for the veteran’s supposed expertise. Good acting usually helps.

What Carney does here is go with a fourth option, which is to find an inventive way to showcase the veteran’s talent. In this case, the talent is his ability to hear what the others cannot. The ability to register not how a song sounds, but how it could sound. And by showing us all of this through the addition of the phantom orchestra, he establishes the rookie’s promise and the veteran’s ability to see it, all during the course of a single song. It’s a thing of beauty.

ps: The only other example of this approach that immediately comes to mind is the scene in Finding Forrester where Jamal Wallace retrieves the backpack that contains his notebooks from Forrester’s house, and finds that his writings have been critiqued by what appears to be an expert. But since it’s writing, unlike music, you can’t actually see what’s so good about it.

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3 thoughts on “Freeze Frame #166: Begin Again

  1. S says:

    LOVE how you intuit these types of things. You did it Once, and here you go… Again. Also love this central point you made over there (that you hint at here): How the Guy and Girl need [to co-create] music to…exist.

  2. Ramsu, there is a fleeting moment of the same thing at the end of the Pilot episode of Mozart in the jungle.

    The scene has an oboist playing Mozart’s Oboe Concerto in C Major. She is playing it solo on an empty stage dismayed that she has missed what could have been a life changing audition in an orchestra she adores.

    The conductor of the orchestra, unknown to her, is listening and his expression changes when he hears this, understanding what it could be. The episode concludes cutting to titles which seamlessly moves to a full orchestra version.

    • I need to watch this show now. Couldn’t find a YouTube link to the scene you mentioned.

      Although it isn’t really analogous, I am also reminded of the phantom piano playing scene in The Pianist with the German officer, wouldn’t you say? There’s a sort of reflective quality to that scene, in that both men are imagining what the music would sound like, and the very idea of them living in a world where they could just be a pianist and a listener is, in a sense, the orchestra.

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