One of my favorite little movies of the past year was “Begin Again.”
It’s a movie about music, songwriters, and music producing. For those of you in any of these fields, run out and see it now. Yes, it’s a Hollywood film. Yes, there’s a ton about it that’s really, really unrealistic.
But it also contains a scene that is newly one of my favorite film scenes of all time.
The first thirty minutes of the film tells the backstory of the same scene: Keira Knightly’s character playing a short song at a New York City open mic. The film basically shows that same moment twice…from the perspectives of Knightly’s, and then and Mark Ruffalo’s, characters.
I’ve found a YouTube clip that consists of both movie scenes, back-to-back, and I hope you’ll watch it below.
But first, a little explanation.
Knightly’s character is a Brit spending her last night in New York. She’s been jilted by her songwriting partner/boyfriend (played wonderfully by Adam Levine). A fellow expat songwriter from London drags her, quite unwillingly, to a local open mic. He then all but tricks her up on stage to sing her song, “A Step You Can’t Take Back.”
It goes….well, it goes pretty much like any open mic debut by an unknown goes. I mean, every songwriter knows this moment. She strums. She sings. People continue to talk/drink over the whole thing. There’s maybe there’s a smattering of applause. And that’s it.
But Ruffalo’s character –a burned out music producer who’s just stumbled on that same open mic– hears things in that moment nobody else hears. He approaches her, and begs her to let him record her songs. She’s realistically skeptical of this drunk middle-aged guy, appearing out of nowhere. But, as you might imagine, since it’s a Hollywood film, they eventually agree to record together…and the rest of the film plot is set.
It’s been a horrible day. He’s basically fired from the record company he helped found. Humiliatingly, it all goes down in the presence of his daughter. He’s separated from his wife. He’s got no money, and so prospects. So, already drunk, he stumbles into this bar, just as Knightly takes the stage.
Now, the film gives us the same scene we’ve already seen. Except now, we hear the scene through his ears. And, as somebody who’s done some producing and studio work, I literally welled up with tears, got chills a little when I first saw this.
So, without further introduction, take a watch/listen to the two scenes. Knightly’s perspective starts. Ruffalo’s persective on the same moment, start at the 1:52 mark….just after the smatter of applause from the first perspective/performance.
What I love about this scene is that it’s the closest visual/film approximation to what sometimes really does happen in the studio. The gifted people who happen to have the “producer gene” simply hear things that the rest of us don’t.
It’s a creative gift/genius all its own. It’s just as creative, and just as necessary, a step* as the songwriting process itself. I’ve grown to love producing, and love tinkering in my own studio. And, now and then, those beautiful breakthrough moments happen. Which is what moved me when I saw this scene.
I said to myself….”Yes!”
Not everyone can do this, and nobody does it all the time. And, truly, nobody does it as effortlessly as a Hollywood film scene.
It’s hard work, skill, and training, and practice.
But I know my musician friends will agree that there are also those moments when real “magic” happens.
There are also those mystical moments of creation…in both songwriting and producing…that just feel like gift.
And they are beautiful and holy.
*when done well