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Title: ‘A Step You Can’t Take Back’
Where to find it: ‘Begin Again’ film soundtrack (2014, ALXNDR)
Performed by: Keira Knightley
Words by: not sure, but the song is credited to John Carney, Gregg Alexander (known more famously as the frontman of the ’90s band The New Radicals), and Danielle Brisebois

I’d meant to see Begin Again and then it was out of the cinema before I knew it. A couple months later, I went out for brunch and a new friend said to avoid it, because there were too much swearing in it for a nice young lady like me. Okay.

On the way back from my last trip to the UK, I couldn’t sleep, so I flicked through the in-flight entertainment choices on the tv in the seat in front of me. Hmm. Begin Again. Shall I watch this? For reasons only certain people would understand, there are so many eerie coincidences in this film that it seems written for me and I was supposed to see this film while leaving the country, where I seem to have left behind someone forever. I won’t ruin the film for you (the interpretation probably will, so here’s your alert, SPOILERS!), but if you’ve seen the trailer, or even if you’ve contemplated for a moment the actual title of it, you know what the film is about. It’s just unusual it is set in the world that myself and many of my friends and acquaintances like to call home: the music business.

In the story the song was written under emotional duress, so it makes sense that it’s pretty touching when you’re presented with it the first time in the film. It undergoes an evolution through the film, as does Keira Knightley’s character Gretta. What seemed to be a quite hopeless situation for her character at the beginning ends up at the end with her getting closure that what happened was for the best, which is most often all we can ask about situations that are out of our control.

Sometimes we think things are meant to be. And when our hearts are hurting and broken, in the moment we can’t see what we come to accept later: maybe it wasn’t.

First, the words:

Verse 1
So you find yourself at this subway
With your world in a bag by your side
And all at once it seemed like a good way
You realize it’s the end of the line
For what it’s worth

Chorus
Here comes the train upon the track
And there goes the pain, it cuts to black
Are you ready for the last act?
To take a step you can’t take back?

Verse 2
Taken all the punches you could take
Took ’em all right on the chest
Now the camel’s back is breaking
Again, again
For what it’s worth

Chorus
Here comes the train upon the track
And there goes the pain, it cuts to black
Are you ready for the last act?
To take a step you can’t take back?

Bridge
Did she love you?
Did she take you down?
Was she on her knees when she kissed your crown?
Tell me what you found

Modified chorus
Here comes the rain, so hold your hat
And don’t pray to God, ’cause He won’t talk back
Are you ready for the last act?
To take a step you can’t take back, back, back?
You can’t take back, back, back.

Outro
So you find yourself at this subway
With your world in a bag by your side

Now, the analysis:

The song has two related but pretty different interpretations. “Train”, “pain” and “rain” are used as rhyming points – rather effectively, I might add – to link what is happening throughout the story. The train is also used successfully, like the image of a road in many other times in popular song, to indicate the great journey of life. But here is where the rail line splits: is it about suicide, or is it about the end of a relationship?

If you take it on the suicide / ending your life track, the more obvious path, the clues are pretty clear cut. The protagonist has reached the lowest point of her life and wants to end it. She’s holding all her worldly possessions “with your world in a bag by your side”, a pathetic state. If she were to jump in front of a moving New York City subway train, death would be instantaneous, “and there goes the pain, it cuts to black.” People who are feeling suicidal seem to have this fanciful yet incorrect notion that if they kill themselves, the pain is gone. Not really. They are gone from this plane but the pain then gets transferred to those who they left behind. You can argue the rain imagery is either tears or an sign of rebirth (similar to baptism and having the old sins being washed away in favour of the new).

However, if you analyse it in the context of the film, it’s not about suicide at all. It’s about the end of a relationship or even more strongly, about a woman challenging her man about him taking a step that will change their lives forever. In the film, Adam Levine’s character David was in a relationship with Keira Knightley’s Gretta that seemed fine on the surface when the two of them relocated to New York City while his career was just beginning. Until he basically sold his soul to the devil and had an affair with one of his producers. The “she” in the bridge can stand for either this woman he had an affair with or the tempting side of the music industry itself:

Did she love you?
Did she take you down?
Was she on her knees when she kissed your crown?
Tell me what you found

Both crimes committed by David are cardinal sins in Gretta’s book: they are singer/songwriters that have bonded over their commitment to being true to their art and the former goes against artistic integrity, and the latter of course results in her heart shattering when she learns she’s been cheated on. In a song. (I’ve had songs written for and written about me before, but I’ve yet to have learned about the transgressions of someone close to me written up in one. I can’t even imagine.) In Gretta’s case, it’s the ultimate betrayal, the ultimate knife through the heart.

As the film progresses, Gretta, now David-less, slowly finds her feet again, actually flourishing in the absence of him. It’s interesting we hear this song early on the film, because she had written when she was suffering the lowest of the lows, and as a result, when she plays it, egged onstage by her best friend Steve, played by James Corden, she seems sullen, almost not all there. It is left up to Mark Ruffalo’s character’s Dan, who hears promise and truth in Gretta’s words and singing, to take notice and give Gretta the confidence boost and just plain human kindness she didn’t even really know she needed.

However, as we get further along in the plot, the song comes to take on a new meaning. The song was written for and directed towards David and that significance is still preserved. But how it has changed is really interesting. He returns to New York City as a huge star and tries to make amends with her, realising that even with all the fame he’s gotten by selling out, he still misses her and wants her back. He invites her to a high-profile show at the Gramercy, where she is hopeful that he is the man she fell in love with, but she realises as he commercially butchers the song she wrote as a Christmas present for him years ago, ‘Lost Stars’, that she no longer needs him.

Are you ready for the last act? / To take a step you can’t take back?,” which formerly was sung by Gretta dripping with vitriol, can now be sung – and heard – more sweetly. And honestly. But still as a challenge. David took the step you can’t take back, professionally and personally. The last act was where their relationship ended. While Gretta gets her sweet revenge in the end – she writes, records, and releases an album he’s truly impressed by her efforts, and it becomes a overnight success, though I can tell you, please do not be fooled, that kind of success is rarely that easy – what comes across loud and clear is very true: what’s done is done. And you can never go back to the way things were.

Lastly, the song in two forms: one, as Knightley performed it in the film, bare and spare (turn up the volume), and in its full form on the soundtrack, with all its backing.

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