2014, John Carney
Two lost souls spurned by life coming together after a chance encounter has been the basic premise of a lot of films over the years, most of them trite and sentimental romantic comedies. In recent years one of the more appealing efforts that could be broadly described this way was Once, a very small musical set in Dublin about a busker and an immigrant who develop a kinship as they write, perform and record songs over the course of the film.Once of course took off in the artistic community, earning an Oscar for one of the songs and eventually being adapted into a stage production which won multiple Tony Awards. Seven years after that film saw its release, writer/director John Carney has returned with a familiar premise on a slightly larger, Americanized scale in Begin Again.
Dan (Mark Ruffalo) is a record producer who reached the top but has been spiraling ever since a rocky break-up with his wife many years ago, leading to almost a decade of not being able to sign a single new artist while his partner Saul (Yasiin Bey) makes their company more commercial and seeks new avenues for profit that are pushing Dan out of the business. Gretta (Keira Knightley) is in a serious relationship with Dave (Adam Levine), a musician whose career is taking off and eventually she realizes that his rise to fame has left her behind. One night in a small, cramped bar in New York, Gretta gets on stage and performs one of her own songs — a tragic, quietly powerful piece that is unfortunately ignored by the crowd who are much more focused on their own conversations to appreciate the artistry right in front of them. Dan, however, is at the bar drowning his sorrows in bourbon but once he hears her begin to play he sees a way to get himself back in the game — finally an artist worth recognizing after all these years.
Thus brings us into the world of Begin Again, a light and easily appreciable film that takes these two charming actors and lets them win the audience over while they take their show onto the streets. After being rejected by Saul, Dan realizes that everything he needs to record an album for Gretta is right at their fingertips and the two, aided by Gretta’s friend Steve (James Corden), enlist the help of a small group of musicians to record every song in a different location around New York. They hit hot spots like Central Park as well as roof tops and subway platforms while putting together this album and rejuvenating the spirit of both characters who were finding themselves wayward in a world that had left them behind. While Once gave us a sort of gritty, homemade interpretation of this kind of story, Begin Again takes on a more traditionally appealing approach that still manages to never stray too far into cliche or sentimentality.
There are certainly moments throughout Begin Again that begin to tread the line, but every time Carney comes close he makes sure to reel it back in, letting these two characters ground this story in something very natural. One of the film’s most prominent themes is not losing the meaning in something beautiful by worrying about what others think and in turn making it more conventional and “crowd-pleasing” just to suit someone else, which could potentially put an odd flavor in the mouth when you look at this film compared to Once. It’s true that the earlier picture felt as though it had more passion in it with that homegrown quality while this one brings a more readily accessible approach and an A-list cast, but Carney maintains an effective delicacy with Begin Again that rarely lets it stray too far towards feeling like any compromise was made for the sake of commercialism. Admittedly, one area where that may fold a tad is in the appearances of Adam Levine and Cee Lo Green which feels a bit too much like stunt-casting and certainly isn’t helped by their awkward, flat performances.
Begin Again is a love story, but not in the way that you’d expect or even that Carney’s script teases it becoming from time to time. Dan and Gretta do find themselves thanks to their relationship with one another, but the most refreshing thing is that it’s not about finding themselves within the other person. It’s about finding your own love in whatever that may be, whether it’s riding your bike away from your past on a lovely New York night or sitting on a bench listening to an iPod with someone you cherish. Carney keeps this relationship platonic, while offering up this beautiful idea of Gretta seeing Dan’s passion and individuality and allowing it to help her realize that she didn’t want a life with Dave and his over-produced, generic top forty hits that are more about the financial gain than the purity of the music. As he did in Once, Carney gives us plenty of hits that will get stuck in your head for days after you leave the theater and each one, recorded on the street as purely as they’ve been created by Gretta, speaks to a resounding genuineness in this woman that won’t be compromised by anyone.
I’ll admit with Once that I found the film impressive but that it paled in comparison to the wonderful soundtrack that accompanied it, one which has lasted in my memory far longer than anything from the film itself. Begin Again certainly has music that I’ll be listening to for years to come, but here the film is equally as strong and a large part of that is thanks to the charming performances of Knightley and Ruffalo. Ruffalo has done this kind of unkempt, shaggy, narcissistic but good-hearted character several times before and he’s as natural and lovable in it as always but Knightley is the one who really helps to elevate this to the next level. As an actress, she’s taken her fair share of lumps from critics who accuse her of only being able to pout in period pieces but here she proves them all wrong with a performance more vibrant and natural than she’s ever been on screen before. It felt like for the first time we were seeing Knightley in a film that allowed her to be something more akin to her own self and boy was it nice to see her smiling so much over the course of the picture. I’ve long been a fan of the actress, but here she has taken things into a new range for her that is so charming and authentic.
The chemistry between the two leads helps drive this to the pleasant place it achieves and maintains for its entire duration, but Knightley also hits a spark with James Corden, whose scenes with the leading lady have a kind of friendly demeanor and cheery ease that makes it hard not to smile all the way through them. Begin Again opens up by showing us how these characters were brought to their lowest points, but it quickly averts dourness by putting them together and allowing them to find their true happiness thanks to a chance encounter in a cramped little bar. Maybe there’s not enough meat here for it to become something truly significant (and there are occasionally moments where you can feel like something was cut that would have taken things, particularly with Ruffalo’s character, to a darker place) but Carney and his cast have put together an effortlessly charming little crowdpleaser that is perfectly suited for this kind of summer release. Amidst the sea of dull, over-serious $150 million blockbusters on repeat, it’s so refreshing to be able to experience something this genuinely pleasant that isn’t trying so hard.