When John Carney (Once) decided to make a follow-up film about three people trying to maintain passion and artistic integrity in the music business, there was just one ideal choice to write the songs. Gregg Alexander was co-creator and lead singer of The New Radicals, which had a blockbuster hit in 1998 ("You Get What You Give"), before Alexander decided that he did not want to be a big rock star. He dissolved the group to focus on production and song-writing, winning a Grammy for "The Game of Love" in 2003. He has something in common with all three of the lead characters in the film, Keira Knightley's songwriter, Mark Ruffalo's record producer, and, as the rock star who has just hit it big, real-life pop star Adam Levine of The Voice and Maroon 5. The songs Alexander wrote for the film are not just gorgeously melodic; they reveal the characters and move the story forward. Lost Stars is almost certain to be an Oscar nominee.
In an interview. Alexander and I agreed that we much preferred the movie's original title, "Can a Song Save Your Life?" to the more generic release title, Begin Again. So of course I had to ask him if a song had ever saved his life.
Absolutely! Yes, look at me now. I would have been back in Detroit probably, maybe, who knows? I could have been working for Target, I could have been a dentist. I think that music is one of those few things that can save your life, and can change your life. I know from personal experience there have been times when I've been really upset about something. Just the other day I heard Under Pressure by Queen and David Bowie and it completely changed my mood. I went from being a little bit, "what things are bugging me and what's troubling me right now" and all of a sudden I was like "everything is pretty alright, we have got worse things to worry about than the things that we worry about in Western society."
His go-to save-your-life songs include "Tenderness" by The General Public and "Just like Heaven" by The Cure. "That always puts me in a good mood. I just love that record." He also loves "Just Got Lucky" by the JoBoxers and "The Ghost In You" by the Psychedelic Furs, "If you start talking about my favorite songs I'll be here all day. I can go on for like literally three hours."
Alexander's songs are central to the plot of Begin Again. Keira Knightley's character is very unhappy when the "delicate" song she wrote for her boyfriend gets amped up by Levine's character for arena performance. So Alexander had to write a song that would be performed in three very different versions.
Interestingly enough, the song was written just on the acoustic guitar and had a really stripped-down energy to it. So in that context it maybe lent itself to the version Keira did because that's how it was written. It was just in a room like that. But the Adam version gets really big, and has a little bit more life force of its own. It just kind of goes into this kind of wild place and stuff like that. Almost like "Hey Jude", the way it just kept building and building and building. That was kind of what we were hoping to achieve with the Adam version in terms of building the rock 'n roll energy of it.
We were taking it from a stripped-down song to a big, big tour de force. When the two versions were both finally recorded and we listened to them back-to-back we could see there was a way for this progression to make sense. Sometimes when you are singing a song that you believe in, if it's a sentiment that touches you or is true to you for whatever it is that you're thinking or feeling or going through that particular day or month or year. The idea is, even if you are just seeing the acoustic guitar there is this part of you that wants to believe that there's a way for literally the whole world to hear. It's almost like there was a sound system big enough, which God knows will never happen, it would be fun if it did. Because now it would just be headphones. That's the dream, though, that you would be able to build on it with instruments, the drum, the guitar and bass.
The fact that we were given the opportunity to do that was really exciting. To have the freedom to be able to build on it and made the music bigger was something that we were grateful for. Because it was ultimately John's film so we had to serve what his desires were in terms of where we would go to, the bombast versus the subtlety. So what we settled on was a nice middle ground. You get to have the best of both worlds.
When Alexander wrote the song, he did not know Adam Levine would be in the film.
So we just wrote the song from the heart. Then when we found out that we were going to have this iconic pop singer deliver goose bumps-level vocals, we were just beside ourselves. And when he came in and it was the right key and everything came together we were just beside ourselves, we were like 'holy moly the gods up above are looking down on us right now!'