Keira Knightley as Greta
Mark Ruffalo as Dan
Adam Levine as Dave
James Corden as Steve
Hailee Steinfeld as Violet
Yasiin Bey as Saul
Catherine Keener as Miriam
Marco Assante as Marco
Mary Catherine Garrison as Jill
Jennifer Li Jackson as Mim
Ian Brodsky as Malcolm
Shannon Maree Walsh as Rachel
David Abeles as Glen
CeeLo Green as Troublegum
Directed by John Carney
Singer/songwriter Greta (Keira Knightley) arrives in New York City with her boyfriend Dave (Adam Levine), also a singer/songwriter who has just signed a lucrative record deal. Things don’t work out between them leaving Greta floundering to find her way until she encounters Dan (Mark Ruffalo), a down on his luck record producer who hears something in Greta’s music that makes him want to get behind her and sign her to a record deal.
It’s rare to find movies these days that are sold more on the basis of the filmmaker than the film’s stars, but Irish filmmaker and musician John Carney made such an impact with his earlier film “Once,” his return to familiar territory after the little-seen sci-fi comedy “Zonad” should be welcomed with open arms by fans of that movie.
Carney’s musical follow-up opens in a typical New York music club where Keira Knightley’s Greta is beckoned on stage by a friend. In the audience is an obviously inebriated record producer named Dan (Mark Ruffalo). Instead of continuing the story and showing their inevitable meeting, we cut back to see what brought Dan into the club that night after having a falling out with his business partner and hitting rock bottom. It’s a good ten to fifteen minutes before we see Greta again as the film goes back in time and follows her story up until that night at the club. When her musician (and co-songwriter) boyfriend Dave (Adam Levine) has an affair with a woman at his record company, Greta leaves him and the cushy apartment paid for by his record company. Instead of ending up homeless, she runs into fellow musical Brit Steve busking on the streets who offers her a place to stay, as well as inviting her on stage to play a song.
That brings us back to the club when Dan first hears Greta’s music and things falls into a more linear “A Star is Born” type story with Dan wanting to produce a record and sign Greta onto his label so that he can get back into the good graces of his former partner Saul. Greta is stubborn about not selling out her music after seeing the way her ex has been changed by making it big in New York but agrees to Dan’s professional help.
While there are certainly thematic parallels between “Begin Again” and Carney’s earlier film and a similarly pleasant charm, it’s a different type of film. There’s certainly romance created in the obvious chemistry between Knightley and Ruffalo, but also in the way Carney openly displays the film’s love for music, songwriting and particularly New York City.
While having known actors like Knightley and Ruffalo does take away a little bit from watching the film, both actors bring enough genuine likeability to their characters – it’s incredibly easy to get into the instant musical relationship that forms between them. It’s equally amusing to see the Maroon 5 frontman (and “sexiest man alive,” according to People Magazine) Adam Levine in a role where he’s deliberately unpleasant, even sporting ugly facial hair at times.
One of the running subplots involves Dan trying to reconnect with his estranged daughter (Hailee Steinfeld) and his wife, played by Catherine Keener, and Carney does a good job pulling together the two divergent storylines in an organic way.
Obviously, the most important part of the film working is the music with a catchy soundtrack that includes songs from Gregg Alexander, former lead of the New Radicals, and it works in a different way than the Swell Season tunes from “Once,” because they really do sound like potential hits. (“Once’s” breakout star Glenn Hansard does return to provide Greta’s lovely tune “Roses.”)
As someone who worked in the music business in New York for many years, I did take issue with a few ways that music was depicted in the film. For instance, in some of the quieter and more intimate scenes when Knightley is singing, it’s pretty obvious she was pre-recorded since the production seems just a little too glossy for the setting. The premise of recording an album on the insanely noisy streets of New York, especially on a low budget, offers so many potential problems in terms of sound it’s hard to believe, both as a New Yorker and as a sound engineer, that this plan could possibly work. Those less familiar with music production probably won’t even realize how unrealistic this idea is.
Working with a larger budget for this one allows Carney to play with clever and innovative visuals like when Dan first spots Greta singing in the club and we’re allowed a glimpse into his mind as he visualizes her song fleshed out with a full band and strings.
Those who need their movies to always have a happy ending won’t be too disappointed–it’s a pretty safe bet in a movie like this–as things are resolved in a satisfying way even as Carney deliberately avoids taking the obvious easy route some might expect.
The Bottom Line:
While some might feel “Begin Again” shows that lightning only strikes “once,” John Carney’s second musically-based romance offers enough satisfying chemistry between its two leads as well as another terrific soundtrack, which makes it easier to overlook some of its less credible moments.
Begin Again opens in New York and L.A. on Friday, June 27 and in more cities on Wednesday, July 2.