A baby boomer says, a song can save your life

Can a song save your life? From Hawthorne New Jersey, retired editor and writer Alan Paul thinks so. And he just saw a movie to back him up.

Can a song, in fact, save your life? Well, in his rock epic “American Pie,” about the deaths of rock-and-roll pioneers Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and The Big Bopper in a plane crash, Don McLean writes, “Now do you believe in rock and roll; Can music save your mortal soul?” While I’m not sure about music’s effect on mortal souls, I do know of at least one song that apparently has literally saved numerous lives. The Bee Gees’ classic disco anthem called, ironically, “Stayin’ Alive,” is used in many CPR courses to teach the proper cadence for administering chest compressions to unconscious persons. “Ah, ha, ha, ha, stayin’ alive, stayin’ alive. Ah, ha, ha, ha, stayin’ alive …”

Keira Knightley and Mark Ruffalo

Which brings me to a great film my wife Jan and I saw recently. Written and directed by Irish filmmaker John Carney and starring Keira Knightley and Mark Ruffalo, the film debuted in 2013 at the Toronto International Film Festival under the awkward title, Can a Song Save your Life? Then it was released theatrically a couple years ago as Begin Again.

Ruffalo plays a down-and-out music producer who, while sitting on a subway platform in a drunken stupor contemplating suicide, decides to have one more drink before making up his mind. He walks into a nearby bar at the same moment that Knightley’s character, a young British songwriter-to-be, recently dumped by her obnoxious American rockstar boyfriend (adeptly played by American rocker Adam Levine), has very reluctantly stepped upon the bar’s small stage to perform an original composition.

Though normally there are several instruments behind her, the band has taken a break, so she eases timidly into her song, while accompanying herself on an acoustic guitar. Her voice, though pleasant, is unremarkable and reed-thin, and she loses the crowd almost before the song has started. Except for Ruffalo who, hearing her tiny voice amid the bar clatter, looks up to see this pretty but sad, intimidated girl singing what-is-left-of-her-heart out.

Alan Paul

As he watches and listens more and more intently, something strange, unexpected, and wonderful starts to happen. The other instruments on the bandstand begin coming to life, one by one. First the hi-hat from the drum kit starts setting the beat; it is followed quickly by the piano; then the drumsticks come alive; soon the soulful cello emerges; shortly thereafter, a sweet violin. Finally the entire bandful of instruments is playing, sans musicians, behind her. Of course the only people aware of this phantom orchestra are the Ruffalo character, and the eight of us in the theater that afternoon for the 2:10 showing.

His music-producer instincts have kicked in, giving a nearly perfect, though spontaneous, arrangement to Keira’s sad song of lost love, regret, and the virtually unbearable drudgery of moving on with one’s life, alone. The song, “A Step You Can’t Take Back,” is a revelation, as Mark’s character envisions it — to him, to us, and, before very long, to Knightley’s character as well. Up to this point, a good fifteen or so minutes into the film, I wasn’t at all sure I liked it. Again. But the unadulterated magic and emotional crescendo generated by this remarkable scene grabbed me by the heart and refused to let go.

So a song can save your life? It literally did for Mark Ruffalo’s character in Begin Again, and did, as well, for Knightley’s character, if in a more metaphorical way.


  1. Thanks for this reminder! After stumbling upon this film a few years ago on RedBox, it became one of my favorite movies of all time. In addition to that first tune, the songs “Lost Stars” and “Like a Fool” are exceptional, too. Every moment, in fact, is brilliance. As a singer/songwriter in Chicago and LA in the late 80s and early 90s, I appreciate the spot-on authenticity of the script. Kudos to Adam Levine, brave enough to play that guy we all know (I suspect, most likely, himself). The acting by an absolutely stellar cast, the way it’s told (the editing is especially wonderful), and the soundtrack ~ it’s all sublime. Like “Harold and Maude” and “Dan in Real Life,” the film’s music will take you into the story and never let you go. And, yes, for sure, a song can save your life. I’m living proof.

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