Begin Again (2013) / Comedy-Drama
aka Can a Song Save Your Life?

MPAA Rated: R for language
Running Time: 104 min.

Cast: Mark Ruffalo, Keira Knightley, Adam Levine, Catherine Keener, Hailey Steinfeld, James Corden, Mos Def, Cee Lo Green
Small role: Rob Morrow
Director: John Carney
Screenplay: John Carney

Review published July 8, 2014

Keira Knightley (Jack Ryan, Anna Karenina) stars as Greta, a British singer-songwriter in New York City with her burgeoning rock star boyfriend, Dave (Levine, in a decent debut), who turns out to be a philanderer.  On the eve of her return across the pond, she is convinced by an old pal to play one of her latest tunes on open-mic night at an East Village club, where she impresses no one but Dan (Ruffalo, Now You See Me), a down-and-out record company founder who sees the potential in her music to think it can sell.  Without a job and a home life in shambles, Dan finds it difficult to convince Greta to trust him enough to actually let him mentor her into becoming the sensation he thinks she can be.  With no money to cut a proper demo, Dan has to pull a few strings and comes up with the unique notion of recording the songs to laptop around various picturesque environs of the city.

Once writer-director John Carney sticks with the music industry focus, but this indie-feeling movie with big name stars loses the rawness and endearing quaintness of his breakthrough first work.  Carney is perhaps a victim of raised expectations, as Begin Again is a rather pleasant movie with lots of catchy music, but anyone looking for lighting to strike twice will be disappointed, and fans of the stars may be off put by seeing these credible thespians not really playing to their strengths.  Plus, the formula involved in the story is all too obvious here, despite occasonal fresh and innovative ideas.

One of those innovative ideas starts early enough in the film, as we see several sides of the same tale told out of continuity, which gives us the state of mind of each main player as their proverbial worlds collide.  One particularly effective sequence has us experience the lackluster performance by Greta in a nightclub pull of patrons who aren't feeling it at all save for Dan, who envisions a piano, drums, bass, and strings come to life to accompany this sweet voice and her soft, poetic lyrics.    This scene captures both the essence of the anguish and butterflies that come through being a performer, as well as the exuberance of finding raw, moldable talent -- a yin and yang of the music industry that must find a way to co-exist if both parties are to achieve fame and fortune.

While the soundtrack is by far the best selling point for Begin Again, even these feel subdued when compared to the soaring ballads we experience with Once, perhaps indicative of having real musicians always front and center in the film rather than actor stand-ins.  The songs do play nice to the ears, but it would have been even nicer to have heard live versions of the songs instead of watching these actors lip-synch their performances with studio tracks, especially when we know that, due to the guerrilla-style premise of their sessions, they really have only one shot to record each song live to the hard drive before they have to move on.  As with Carney's prior work, it's the balance between the heart of the music and the soul of the city that strikes a perfect balance, and Begin Again is entertaining to watch just from the perspective of that marriage of sight and sound.

On the down side of the film comes the rather unlikeable characters we're given.  If we root for them at all, it's only because of their underdogs-in-life status, but most of them are either self-centered or merely self-absorbed, which is perhaps necessary for Carney to showcase the ego of anyone who would dare to try to make their living in the music business.  But, perhaps it's not the characters so much as the lead actors, Ruffalo and Knightley, who just feel an uncomfortable fit for their roles, with the former too low-key to buy as the extroverted, hot-shot music executive, and the latter too glossy and pampered to jibe with the grit and angst of her shattered existence.

Some scenes play too cute to be believed, such one in which Dan and Greta decide to listen to their cellphone music libraries using a splitter for their headphones while walking and singing around town.  It's hard to swallow the disbelief that they would bother to do this, or that fellow pedestrians would let them, but the sequence is punctuated by them feeling like they have to find a place to dance -- they sneak into a dance club where there is absolutely no way they'd be able to hear the sounds of Stevie Wonder on their ear buds in the middle of a thumping dance floor.  Another too-cute scene sees Greta sing a song to her ex (about how she can't help but still have feelings but can't live with his shortcomings) directly to his voice mail in a fashion that would have likely been cut off for one reason or another long before it ends (and what's wrong with just sending an mp3 in an email attachment?)

Nevertheless, there are some choice nuggets for those who like behind-the-scenes peeks into the music industry.  The primary one is the age-old struggle between the artist, who sees her work as something that should be pure and personal, and the producer, who sees the work as something that should be molded into a form that as many people as possible can relate to.  It also explores how difficult it is to cultivate talent, and that not just anyone with an ear for song composition also has the skill to cultivate an artist's look and sound into potential commercial success.

Begin Again is just pleasant enough in its music, cinematography, and sense of humor to offer a modestly entertaining good time, so long as you're willing to put aside the heavy contrivances for the sake of the pleasures of the music-video montages and nicely-developed performances.  It's like a pop song that you can sense is derivative and striving for commercial appeal, but it is so well-produced, you can't help but tap your toes in all its guilty-pleasure glory. While Carney's film doesn't capture the spellbinding and enduring magic of Once, it has enough tricks up its sleeve to continue to entertain for the here and now.

Qwipster's rating:

2014 Vince Leo