Written and directed by John Carney, the man responsible for Once, Begin Again is an enthusiastic musical drama/romantic comedy that embraces the role that music, and collective inspiration and creativity, can have in the emotional rehabilitation of people who are need of a fresh start. Mark Ruffalo is the kind of actor who oozes carefree charm and utilizes natural mannerisms to give his affable characters added humanism and complexity. In Begin Again, like many projects before, he makes everything look easy, and he always seems to play characters I end up being a little jealous of. Ruffalo-led films, with the exception of last year’s terrible Thanks For Sharing, rarely go sour, and he is a prominent reason why I enjoyed Begin Again so much. Also convincing is Keira Knightley, who I am slowly becoming a fan of. Though it is dubious to call the musical performances ‘live’, it is Knightley on the vocals and the toe-tapping songs are great.
From the opening minutes, we know that Dan (Ruffalo) is currently a shadow of his former shadow. He has a teenage daughter (Hailee Steinfeld) that he never sees, and he has just awoken with a hangover from an epic bender, brought on by the recent termination of his position as an executive of a record label. The label had been struggling, and when he turns up to a meeting drunk, it is the last straw for his frustrated partner Saul (Mos Def).
The events of the previous night are revealed in flashback, and it seems there is a silver lining. At one of the bars in the East Village the very drunk Dan is smitten with Gretta (Knightley), an independent singer/songwriter who is planning to leave New York following a break-up with her partner and successful musician Dave (Adam Levine from Maroon 5). Though they write together, and she matches his talent, he has become the star. The song she performs re-ignites Dan’s creative spirit and he offers to sign her to the label, a promise he no longer can guarantee. At first she refuses, but after a change of heart the pair become friends, and Saul is impressed by the demo they bring to him. After recruiting a team of talented musicians, Dan and Gretta decide to record their album at public locations around New York City, grappling with their feeling for one another along the way.
What I enjoy about both of Carney’s films is the way that they capture chance relationships, and how they are shaped by the shared passion for a song and their collective inspiration. Personally, music has such an impact on my mood – harsh, angry music can lead me through any morose stage and a soulful, powerful song with meaningful lyrics can be truly affecting. I find how people connect through music to be very interesting and any film that explores the relationship between people and music, and people through music is usually something I enjoy very much.
There is a hint of Inside Llewyn Davis here. This comparison mostly relates to the New York setting – though it is present-day as opposed to the 1960’s – but also about irresponsible people with music in their blood who have squandered a chance and seeking redemption. It is also about a talented musician emerging from the shadow of her boyfriend, forging an independent identity and electing to distribute online, and choosing to keep the fame a low precedence in her life.
I was surprised to learn that Begin Again is 104 minutes. It is such pleasant and relaxing watch that it really breezes by. New York City looks great, the outdoor recordings incorporate the community, and we get an idea of the music scene through not only grungy underground bars, but the sleek offices of Dan’s label and the decked out pad of a popular rap musician Troublegum (CeeLo Green).
Offering great supporting value is James Corden, as Gretta’s best friend, but I thought the chemistry between Ruffalo and Knightley was perfect. Levine was good enough to serve his role in the film – be an asshole, who can ‘definitely’ sing – but it is becoming a trend for the excellent Catherine Keener to be relegated to an ex-wife or something irrelevant.
Still, Begin Again’s hopeful ending is satisfying – and, I think, aware of its manipulation – that it is easy to overlook any flaws along the way. It has an infectiously warm and pleasant vibe, lined with a sincere brand of realism.
Andrew Buckle – follow Andy on Twitter here: @buckle22