Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Begin Again: A Movie Review

At several levels, I can totally relate with the movie Begin Again. First off, it turned out to be a surprisingly better choice for me over the latest Transformers sequel as it saved me from the deafening noise of machines talking, whirring, clanging, crashing and exploding. Instead, I was treated to excellent music superbly mixed and delivered by the finest theater sound-system you cannot carry around in an iPod or even install in your house, while spun around an optimistic but realistic story (a multi-faceted love story thankfully unlike what many would expect as it relates to the idea of music production or, as I see it, the innocent artistic side of being a composer). No, I was actually thinking I was watching a retelling of my own life as a songwriter/producer. Or, if not my actual experiences, at least my views about music as a craft and as a business, about relationships and about life as a whole.

I wish I could have watched the movie again just to get a better grasp of the dialogue and the nuances of some characters’ evolution into what they could be the epitome of people who rule our music industry. But as an out-of-the-way film about out-of-the-way music, I doubt if it will ever ring bells among the profit-oriented composers and producers among us. Nevertheless, this painfully raw but brutally powerful film deserves five stars for even making a gallant stand against the music industry powers-that-be.

How many watched or preferred it over other films is the big question. But, hey, I am overjoyed that even in the character of Keira Knightley, Greta, an idealistic music writer exists who simply finds joy and fulfillment in hearing her songs (or singing it to her cat) and not to hear it played on the radio -- decorated or enhanced to please the music executives. Her initial disgust at the idea of recording her song set the theme all throughout the movie with a mellowing at the end when she realizes every artist must work the machine to some degree so that what her cat hears can be heard by humans as well.

At those initial levels, the movie succeeds for me. Nothing else would matter; but there is more.

Aside from the fact that Greta rides a bike around New York City, she also is the kind of person who does not think twice of humbly serving people she cares for. From her boy friend, Dave Kohl, played by Adam Levine whom she practically follows around as a supportive “coffee-server/waiter” and “inspiration”, she also serves her partner-producer Dan’s (played by Mark Ruffalo) daughter like a “social worker” on-duty – teaching her how to dress, how to attract the right kind of boy-friend and how to play with a band. On top of that, she bravely counsels the father how to treat a daughter as a father should and not as an absentee-father that he is.

Here is an artist who truly knows life and knows that life is not merely escaping into a dream world of musical ideas to describe her view of the perfect world; she actually ends up making songs that explode with the angst that life deals her (like the Dear John song – Like a Fool -- composed and recorded on an iPhone for her boy-friend) and frees herself of the things that burden rather than bless her.

But one of the most fatal stabs the film succeeds in punching a hole on the fabric of the giant music industry is not even shown in the main body of the movie but in the end-credits. Those who leave before then or do not listen carefully would easily miss the frontal attack against profiteers out there. She decides to reject the offer of a big music label in favor of producing her album herself and selling it online for -- what? just $2 per album! Again, here is an artist who compromises a bit to make some profit off her work but does so by allowing more people to access her creative work. Not that talent is cheap, as the film may appear to be saying; real talent must be made available to as many people as possible. That is, in spite of the potential her work has to rake in much money if pushed through the usual music production process, she opts for using the Internet and its alternative music stores to reach as many people as possible. Which, in the business sense, actually makes a lot of sense! That is how you defeat the giants. Remain small but accessible. With so many artists doing that, who needs giants? The film is either describing or starting a revolution.

The movie (as the title seems to suggest) must be giving everyone of us a chance to look at music, together with the artistic and business sides of it as well, with a fresh look, showing us how to begin again with the basics of why we make or listen to music in the first place. The song is the product of a person whose heart and soul give birth to emotions worth writing about. Whoever is or are involved in the song or the story of the song is all that matters for the true artist. We write to set free what is burning within us. The catharsis is the fulfillment itself. Whether others listen (or listen in) or not is less of a concern.

The song is finished the moment it is written and sung by the writer. But the producer, oftentimes, hears arrangements and applause and money jingling as the song plays. The two sounds are entirely two different things altogether. Much of what we hear then (even the many best hits we love), may not be what the writer meant it to be. Yes, we must admit, many hits would not have been released without the music machinery that exists. But imagine how many more beautiful and honest songs we would have had if things were done differently -- as they are now, slowly through alternative ways suggested by the film.

The essential songwriter hears only the words and melody of the song and nothing else. Others may hear something else; and therein lies the danger of losing the essence of the song. And often, that is what happens.

Next time you listen to a song, listen to the silent voice of the writer and, if possible, just a guitar or a keyboard behind it, and not just the singer (unless, of course, if it is Randy Newman!). Oftentimes, you will hear what the song is originally all about and not what we want it to mean. Even Dave Kohl or Adam Levine, the epitome of the rock star in and out of the movie, realizes this as he sings the song Keira’s character had written for him (or, more precisely, for the two of them), albeit too late.

It may not be too late for many of us to begin again, not just in the artistic or professional sense but in the moral or spiritual sense. That at those moments when we are at the end of our rope, we can still find the hope to begin a fresh start in life. But sometimes, it takes a real life-artist (meaning, a genuine observer of life and the undying principles that govern it) to find out how to begin again.


(Photo above: Still Life Special FX photography by Sean & Misha Raymer, Jordan Flores and Jhanine Familara of Baguio City.)

Monday, July 21, 2014

LSS and Mental Discipline

I found the cure for LSS!

You know, that Last Song Syndrome that keeps a song playing in your mind whatever you are doing. Here it is: Keep saying LSS silently as many times as you can. At times, say Last Song, Silent! as if commanding your mind to click that song off your mental iPod. Or say, Love Stillness, Silence like a yogi hypnotizing yourself into a mental reboot, or, if an unwelcome song really persists, un-mute the volume and shout: Leave, Stupid Song!

It works for me. Try it; it could also work for you.

Obviously, music should be sung or listened to, not just serve as literal or virtual (mental) background audio-scape to remind us we are not alone. It’s so quiet and lonely here; let’s have some sounds! Or we leave the TV on while we do something else. We are now so inured to sound or noise that silence scares us into thinking or feeling we are detached from others or ourselves.

Or we think listening to someone or something makes us look smart, feel productive or reasonably happy. The business-people want you to think so and you know why. The IT industry has cashed in on our supposed appetite or desire for information. But how much information is enough? And what kind of information really matters?

Worse of all, we have let others think for us, feel for us and even sing for us. We have become nothing but absorbents of others’ lives. We let others live for us and in us. And we gladly let them and, sometimes, we live our lives around their lives as well. That is what we do with our idols -- celebrities or deities.

Music is a product of a living mind. But not all music is meant to lead you to life. Some can destroy your mind and life. What music ends up doing to you then is part of your conscious or unconscious effort to become a better or less person than you are now.

Yes, in some instances, music also helps us to think clearly and more effectively; but have we ever really done quiet thinking? I mean thinking and listening only to our mind and not to others’ opinions or commentaries or to music playing out loud or inside our brain?

This is how the brain generally works: It focuses at one thing at a time; but we often allow it to wander or get off track with or without our conscious control. Imagine a highway with many streets branching out of it, left and right, diagonally and roundabout. The brain can only allow us to think willfully on one single thing at any moment and yet we do not realize that it switches from that thing (say a TV show) to one or more things at various times, sometimes within a split second (the cat leaping onto your lap which you pat as you go back to the show) or a longer time (your son calling you to ask if he can go out with his friends and you say, OK, have a great time!) and back to the thing (the show!).

Like Walter Mitty, you drive down a highway, take a turn right for a few meters to get a cat up on a tree into your car, then drive back to the highway and then turning left for a mile to watch and cheer your son as he flips over and kicks the football into the goal and, then finally, back to the highway on your way now to the planet Naboo aboard a spaceship, if you happen to be watching Star Wars.

LSS, or any mental diversion, is essentially a turn from the main highway that keeps our mind distracted, daydreaming or scatterbrained -- and whatever else we have come to name it. Oftentimes, the very thing we are doing might be the distraction we should be avoiding: playing video games or partying till dawn. Yes, many of us have made a career or life of distractions! We fondly call them hobbies – or, sometimes, obsessions.

It takes discipline to keep focused. Athletes are good at it. Their passion for concentration and total body engagement to the matter at hand are limitless. A single distraction as the opponent lobs a ball over the net could make you lose your timing and miss the backhand return for a lost point. Or a split second glance to your side could lead you to run over a rock and cause a nasty bike spill.

We are the pilots of our minds and have complete control over what we will think and, consequently, what we will say and do. If the mind, therefore, appears as if it is trying to wrest control from us, it can only mean we lack the tools to discipline ourselves, our bodies and our abilities. Accidents do and will happen; but that is mainly because we and others get out-of-focus or mindless now and then.

We should learn to control our minds or we will always find ourselves being undisciplined or unmindful (that is, half-a-mind away from the where we are). As the Jedi master often said: Be mindful, padawan! The world has become so complicated and at times chaotic that the mind is constantly bombarded by stimuli from all sides. And we are partly to blame. We buy cell-phones we can use as a phone, an iPod, a camera, a TV, a book, a browser, a play station, a piano, a recorder and even as a mirror. And then, there is the elevator, the bus, the mall or just about everything which drowns our ears with music of various kinds and rhythm, soft and loud, fast and slow. And the billboards that do not cease to seduce even at night. The neighbors who sing karaoke till dawn. Or the dogs that steal your sleep as they bark at a cat over the fence.

Yes, even when you need sleep to still your mind, things still manage to bring you off the highway of your dreams to restart you back to consciousness and into the battle for mental serenity and even sanity.

Imagine what we can do is we could totally focus on what needs to be done at all times. Facebook would lose more than half of its users. YouTube would cease to be an alternative for TV and viral videos would die of colds and flu.

Yes, more people would start becoming more efficient users of all their resources: time, money, effort and food. What? Food?!

It takes energy for our nerves to function and each mental process requires axons giving way to impulses that the brain will process accordingly. Hence, LSS can be an emotionally and literally tiring thing for it uses up energy without us achieving some good out of it except irritation, wasted time and lack of concentration. So, solving LSS and all other distractions to the mind can help us become healthier as we use up only our energy for things that really matter for our well-being.

We can take necessary detours now and then, as long as we focus on our final destination. Let LSS, movies and Candy Crush divert your mind if you need to. But remember the consequences of missing out on the real joys of your journey and the big opportunities you could lose because you dilly-dallied or wasted your energy tramping on the side-streets instead.

The mind never stops and neither does our journey to our destination. Where we find ourselves at the end will depend greatly on how we mapped out our course.

LSS? Love Stillness, Silence. Keep your mind open but not to everything you hear. You have a mind for a good reason. It is not your own. There is a greater Mind trying to get your attention amidst the noise and clutter. And IT wants to think for you and with you.

Listen, Search, Submit.