|Keira Knightley shines as Gretta, a singer-songwriter in John Carney's Begin Again.|
It’s easy to get cynical when you’ve watched thousands of movies. You recognize the normal story beats and how filmmakers set up familiar conflicts for their characters. Even so, I've mostly stayed optimistic when it comes to films with the right heart. Can a song save your life? Probably not, but I love the sentiment. When Sonny proves his musical talents in the final concert of Honeydripper and saves the day, I'm right there with him. Jude singing “All You Need is Love” at the end of Across the Universe is obvious, yet it still gives me chills.
A perfect example is John Carney’s Once, a subtle love story where the Guy (Glen Hansard) and the Girl (Marketa Irglova) connect through the music. It’s quickly become one of my favorite movies, and a main reason is the sense that the songs mean something. They aren’t just pop tunes to play in the background. The music is essential to their lives, and Carney shows how powerful art can be to overcome heartbreak.
That positive feeling remains in Begin Again, his first major follow-up to the breakout hit. Carney played bass in Hansard’s band The Frames in the early ‘90s. He’s drawn to stories about tortured artists re-igniting their passions. This version of New York City is less gritty than the Dublin of Once, but there’s a familiar sentiment. Gretta (Keira Knightley) is struggling after breaking up with her boyfriend and music partner Dave (Adam Levine). He’s become a pop star and evolved into a different guy than the one she loved.
Gretta still believes in “authenticity” from artists despite the difficulty for anyone to maintain that standard. Even a guy like Bruce Springsteen is still putting on a façade for his audience. They aren’t seeing the real person, though it’s probably closer than it is with others. When Dave starts talking about pleasing fans and his bosses instead of himself, he sets a dangerous precedent. Judging by the slimy CEO (a Rob Morrow sighting!), it’s easy to see what Carney thinks of record label execs and their interest in creating good music.
The other major character is Dan (Mark Ruffalo), an independent producer whose life is falling apart. After losing his family and his job, he stumbles into a bar with the intent to drink the night away. By pure chance, he hears Gretta perform “The Step You Can’t Take Back” at an open mic. This moment is replayed multiple times in the film and changes the course of both their lives. When we observe the scene from Dan’s perspective, Carney uses a inventive device that could so easily go wrong. Dan's mind brings the other instruments alive on stage to help Gretta deliver a sweeping pop version of the acoustic song (at least in his head). Dan’s imagination fills in the gaps, and it’s easy to see why he’s so inspired. Whether you buy this moment will say a lot about this film’s success. I was hooked and dove headfirst into the emotional sequence. Ruffalo plays the scene like a drunk, idealistic guy who’s mesmerized by hearing anything with a bit of substance. Beyond the individual song, this sequence is the mission statement for the mood that Carney sets with the entire movie.
|Mark Ruffalo's Dan orchestrates the outdoor recording in a New York City alley.|
It’s easy to overuse the word “charming” to describe this film, but that’s my best description. When Dan and Gretta recruit musicians for their outdoor album, there’s an endearing charm that’s hard to capture. It recalls the moment in Once when a serious loan officer breaks out a guitar and shows off his moves. There’s a fine line between cheery fun and painful sentimentality, and your bar for this type of material could vary substantially. Mine is very high when it comes from a guy like Carney. He use an effective structure that shifts around in time without feeling jarring. Gretta watches a video of happier times with Dave, and then we flash back to that moment and others that shaped their relationship. The editing slowly paints a picture of how she reached her current state without being confusing. Carney doesn’t get too cute and connects the dots like a skilled musician.
Begin Again really hits its stride during the outdoor recordings, which play like music videos in a similar way to Stuart Murdoch’s God Help the Girl. The first band performance of “Coming Up Roses” culminates all their work to build the group. It feels like a triumph no matter what happens with the album. The upbeat “Tell Me if You Wanna Go Home” happens on a rooftop and strikes just the right emotional notes (along with a screaming neighbor). It reveals progress for Dan’s relationship with his daughter Violet (Hailee Steinfeld), who’s a surprisingly adept guitarist. The group is more than just a loose collective and has become a real band. My cynic’s brain was totally shut off by this point. I was gliding along for the ride with a huge smile on my face. A main reason was Ruffalo’s joyous, dorky commitment to Dan’s enthusiasm. He loves the music so much and is feeling the magic once again.
|Dan and Gretta just enjoy the music in a thrilling night in the city.|
I understand that it’s easy to dismiss this story as too precious. Despite the modest budget, it's a glossy production that makes New York City look gorgeous. The music industry scenes with Saul (Mos Def) and other executives are cartoonish. The third act re-introduces Dave as a potential romantic foil, though Carney sidesteps the obvious ending. Even so, how can I dislike a movie that loves music this much?
The scenes with Dan and Gretta strolling through the city and enjoying their favorite songs are thrilling. Stevie Wonder’s “For Once in My Life” is the centerpiece and impossible to resist. Dan and Gretta are kindred spirits with love for these tunes, and my resistance is futile. There’s no real villain in Begin Again; Adam Levine makes Dave endearing despite his evolution into a bearded poseur. People stumble and aren’t perfect, but there’s still hope through human connections and music. Carney reminds us that life’s pretty great, and art can bring us together like nothing else.
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