Begin Again is a horrible name for a film. It’s generic and bland and forgettable. Everything that the actual drama is not. Let me be clear. I loved the film. Hated the title. Apparently test audiences didn’t agree. Back in the Fall of last year the picture was called Can a Song Save Your Life? Oh how much better and more interesting that quirky caption would’ve been had it stayed. This is a pure, effervescent slice of happiness that celebrates the beauty of music. The current moniker doesn’t do this inspired tale justice. For the life of me, I always struggle to remember what it’s called.
Begin Again is a distinctly New York saga. Keira Knightley is Greta, a young songstress still stinging from the breakup of the relationship with her “no-good ex-boyfriend” Dave Kohl, played by Adam Levine. Mark Ruffalo is Dan a once prosperous A&R executive whose career has hit the skids. Now disillusioned, he hasn’t had a success in years. Then one day their paths cross on open-mike night in some nondescript East Village club. Could the promising folk singer and the struggling A&R rep have the right chemistry to make it big? If this slice of life sounds thematically similar to the musical drama Once, that’s because Director John Carney was also responsible for that surprise indie hit in 2007. It’s been about that long since we’ve had such a sweet ode to musicians who write, compose and perform their own material. Most people will remember Once for the ballad “Falling Slowly” by Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová. The singing-songwriting stars won the Academy Award for Best Original Song that year. Begin Again is highlighted by a delightful soundtrack as well.
The story works because of the authenticity of the performances. But this is a film that relies just as heavily on its soundtrack. Gregg Alexander, best known as the frontman of the New Radicals, co-wrote the music with Nick Lashley, Danielle Brisebois, and Nick Southwood. If there’s anything here that might break out, it would be the quietly soaring “Lost Stars”. Director John Carney does the impossible. He deftly extracts the talent to sing from Keira Knightley with the ability to act from Adam Levine. He minimizes their limitations and highlights their strengths. Knightly isn’t the greatest singer in the world but Carney wisely doesn’t have her push her voice beyond a pleasant lilt. She comes across like someone who idolizes Sara Bareilles. The script namechecks Nora Jones. Adam Levine plays a hungry singer who has recently been signed to a major record label – a moment he once occupied in real life before he achieved mega superstardom. He gets to sing several songs here stripped of the traditionally slick production of a Maroon 5 single. Marc Ruffalo’s appearance as Dan borders on crazy homeless guy. It’s supposed to highlight his downward spiral from success but he’s sheepishly charming by nature so Carney simply allows his personality to assert itself.
Begin Again is a beautifully realized valentine to the visionary forces that create music. Director John Carney fashions a collection of snapshots that wonderfully detail the inspiration in producing an album. Dan and Greta first meet in a joyful scene. Dan watches Greta sing “A Step You can’t Take Back” accompanied by nothing more than her strumming guitar. But he imagines the little ditty with a full accompaniment behind her. Each instrument sonically realized before our very eyes as they start playing by themselves in the background one by one: strings, a piano, the drums behind her. Each addition technically only existing in his mind, but we the audience experience what he hears and the results are a window into how an A & R executive might envision the work of an artist.
Begin Again is filled will little vignettes that feel like authentic depictions of the music business. It’s a romantic comedy in which you’re never quite sure if the sparks you see happening between Greta and Dan will ever actually erupt in romance. That little guessing game makes the script a bit unconventional. It’s reminiscent of director John Carney’s previous showbiz drama Once. I loved that film so I’m happy to revisit its style. Along the way we’re treated to some beautiful musical numbers as Greta and Dan record an album at various locations throughout New York City. Now excuse me while I go buy the soundtrack.