Director: John Carney
Cast: Keira Knightley, Mark Ruffalo, Hailee Steinfeld, Adam Levine, James Corden, Catherine Keener, Yasiin Bey, CeeLo Green
MPAA Rating: (for language)
Running Time: 1:44
Release Date: 6/27/14 (limited); 7/2/14 (wider)
Review by Mark Dujsik | July 2, 2014
Hovering in the corner of Begin Again is the ghost of writer/director John Carney's Once, the masterful musical about the unrequited romance between two injured souls who come together through the power of beautiful music even as their lives are falling apart. Direct comparisons of two movies in a review, of course, are unfair both to the movies at hand and to the reader, so let us just start and finish with the notion that this movie is somewhat of a spiritual descendant of Carney's earlier film. They possess the same DNA—a similar general story (making a demo to sell) and themes, comparable narrative tricks, and, most importantly, a genuine love for the creation and performance of music.
In many ways, though, they are completely different. Begin Again exists in a world of which the characters in Once could only dream. Here, one of the on-the-verge lovers is the ex-girlfriend of an up-and-coming pop star. She's credited as a writer of a few of his songs, so we know it's only a matter of time before the residual checks start coming to her mailbox. The other is a famous producer and, until just before the point when the movie starts, the co-owner of a semi-successful record label. When the female singer-songwriter doubts his credentials, she needs only to take out her phone and look him up online to see a career that has spanned decades.
Greta (Keira Knightley) and Dan (Mark Ruffalo) come together because of a fortunate twist of fate. He was contemplating throwing himself on the subway tracks after losing his job and realizing that his wife Miriam (Catherine Keener), from whom he is separated, and daughter Violet (Hailee Steinfeld) are doing and will continue to do just fine without him. He drunkenly stumbles into a bar for one last shot of courage, and on stage, Greta begins to sing a song about loneliness in New York City—a song that opens with the image of a subway. Dan, who hasn't signed a new artist to the label in seven years, believes Greta is a star waiting to be discovered.
We don't know much about these two the first time the scene in the bar plays out in the movie, and Carney gives flashbacks from each of their perspectives (with a flashback within a flashback for Greta's story) to catch us up to where they are at in their lives. After learning of Dan's hardships, in a neat sequence, the instruments behind Greta start to play on their own as Dan imagines what a proper arrangement of her song would sound like.
We discover that Greta had been in a long-term relationship with Dave (Adam Levine), a singer-songwriter whose career has taken off after his songs appeared on the soundtrack of a popular movie. They were more than a couple; they were partners in music. He finds love or something like it with someone from his record company, leaving Greta alone and depressed in the city.
Dan and Greta share a brief conversation about authenticity in the music industry: She's a purist who does not want to compromise her work for record sales; he's a pragmatist who believes that selling an artist's looks is the way to get people to listen to the music. Despite the difference of opinion, there isn't much conflict here; they both love music too much to fight over the business details. When Dan's former business partner (Yasiin Bey) doesn't bite on signing Greta, he comes up with a plan to independently record a concept album of her songs—all of them recorded live in the open air of various parts of the city.
We get a lot of discussions in between scenes of the creation of the album, and they're quite on-the-nose in guiding us toward reaching the emotional cores of these characters. Each of them wears his or her heart on the sleeve, and when they open their mouths, we almost feel as if Carney's screenplay is having the character point directly at those sleeves. There's little mystery as to motives or goals.
It's especially true of Greta and Dave, who have a lengthy talk about their relationship after Greta leaves a voice mail with a song she wrote to tell him how much she's over him. Dan and Greta have a slightly more ambiguous bond, although the long stares each affords the other when he or she isn't looking speaks louder than any words. Sadly, even a sweet sequence in which the two go off on an adventure through the city listening to a random selection of music is undermined by Dan summing up the point of the sequence—that music can make the banal into something magical.
The movie comes to life during the recording sessions, in which we get a genuine sense of adoration for the work at hand. The songs, save for a ballad that marks two very different points in a romance, are not that memorable, but Carney, a musician himself, knows how to depict musicians doing what they do best in such a way that draws us into the process and joy of creativity. Begin Again doesn't fully trust the magic Dan sees in music and, as a result, too often reverts to the banal of declaring what doesn't need to be said.
Copyright © 2014 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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