How is John Carney the only filmmaker who knows how to make a contemporary musical? The “Once” filmmaker recaptures some of that film’s magic in “Begin Again,” a more mainstream approach for a wider American audience. With a team of terrific songwriters and a top-notch cast, “Begin Again” is a welcome reminder of why and how much we love music.
Keira Knightley and Mark Ruffalo star as a singer/songwriter and indie music producer, respectively, who both meet one night after the worst day of their lives. Ruffalo’s Dan is an alcoholic separated from his wife who gets fired from the music label he built and Knightley’s Gretta was just dumped by her rising music star boyfriend, Dave (Adam Levine). Dan is convinced Gretta’s the one who can turn his fortunes around, and the two take a chance on each other and endeavor on a recording project that defies traditional music industry practice.
So much of “Begin Again” rides on the music. The primary trio of writers, Gregg Alexander (lead singer of The New Radicals), Danielle Brisebois (writer of Natasha Bedingfield hits “Unwritten” and “Pocketful of Sunshine”) and Nick Lashley craft accessible but definitively indie acoustic pop tracks that create both moments of emotional introspection and total feel-good vibes throughout the film. It’s the soundtrack that really allows the film to soak in and become so easy to enjoy.
That’s why Carney’s story works a little better than expected. The relationship that evolves between Dan and Gretta is a little strange and awkward, but both characters start at the bottom of the barrel and undergo personal redemption as they continue to collaborate; the music proves to have a transformative effect on their lives. Carney is fascinated with the way music impacts those who make it, and how it can literally change people’s feelings and influence their actions. It’s this reason that he also understands the role music plays in a film, that a film and a story can become something more in a symbiotic relationship with the music rather than a relationship in which one is clearly second to the other and merely complements it.
Ruffalo and Knightley are also the right kind of performers to help achieve the synthesis of story and song. They bring such soul to their roles. Ruffalo’s strength has always been hard to pinpoint, but in “Begin Again,” authenticity emerges as his strong suit. Dan is deeply troubled, but also hopeful and intensely passionate. Ruffalo helps ground the movie with his performance, bringing something raw and dramatic to a film that could’ve been a breezy musical romance in the wrong hands. Knightley too is terrifically cast. Gretta is a true artist repulsed by fame, who loves music in just the purest way a person can. If she were too much of a flashy Hollywood actress, her character wouldn’t have been as credible.
That’s a stark contrast to Levine, who in his film debut plays the antithesis to Gretta, a man too swept up in the fame and spectacle of performing that he loses sight of (what Carney believes to be) the truth of music. As a the writer of radio hit pop songs with little substance and a TV personality, Levine’s superficial persona (as soulful of a guy as he might truly be) helps create the dichotomy of the music industry as Carney sees it. A Cee Lo Green cameo also has a similar effect, though in his character’s case, he helps to fill out Dan’s back story. So these music stars do more than simply pad the cast in order to drum up interest in the movie.
“Begin Again” has a lot to say about music and the industry; Carney does not separate his beliefs from the story. The music is truly the main character and the antagonist is anyone who tries to manipulate it from it’s most authentic form: the raw, earnest expression of human emotion. This belief dictates a quite a bit of the story and ultimately what happens in the film. Carney’s not the kind of filmmaker who will simply wrap things up in that cheesy escapist romantic comedy way. So those looking for total musical Hollywood bliss might not totally understand “Begin Again,” but for the artists, music-lovers and creative types, it’s a thoughtful film that’s almost impossible not lap up.
Written and Directed by John Carney
Starring: Mark Ruffalo, Keira Knightley, Adam Levine, Hailee Steinfeld