From director John Carney (Once), Begin Again is a brand new musical set in the heart of New York City during summer. The movie is hailed for being Adam Levine’s acting debut, though it actually revolves around the dual stories of Greta (Keira Knightley) and Dan (Mark Ruffalo).
Greta is with college sweetheart Dave Kohl (Levine) in New York for his new major record label deal. Blossoming rockstardom beckons for Dave and the trappings of new found fame don’t come easy for the pair as Dave starts to show signs of serious I’m-now-a-rockstar” syndrome. Meanwhile, Dan, a former record executive, is a bumbling alcoholic and his relationship with his estranged wife Miriam (Catherine Keener) and daughter Violet (Hailee Steinfeld) are close to non-existent. His career is down in the dumps, having not signed anyone in 7 years. He is dismissed from his job by his partner Saul (Mos Def) and descends into a bourbon-tinged downward spiral.
Of course, their separate paths eventually cross. Greta, fresh from her break up with Dave, is dragged on stage by her staunch friend Steve (James Corden). Bourbon-sipping Dan hears Greta and his interest is piqued. Instead of the seemingly plain folk song she seems to be playing, Dan hears all these extra imaginary instruments and is convinced that Greta’s great songwriting can make her the next big act. He offers to produce her record but they’re snubbed by the record labels. So the two of them come up with a crazy plan: record the album in public areas around New York City together with a motley crew of, as Dan puts it, “extremely bored musicians”.
Where do we even start? For one, the casting in the movie is spot on. Keira Knightley is pretty damn convincing as a singer-songwriter type who’s not at all comfortable with being a performer. On the other hand, Mark Ruffalo has always been able to translate his scraggly looks into the down-in-the-dumps sort of character. Together, they are irresistible. The two take turns being the yin to each other’s yang, alternating between the roles of dreamer and realist as their seemingly impossible quest to record an album on the streets of NYC.
Besides the leading man and woman, plenty of other actors light up their scenes during whatever time they get. Levine’s fellow “The Voice” judge alum, Ceelo Green, makes an appearance as a rapper who owes his career to Ruffalo’s Dan… and both Knightley and Ruffalo’s interactions with him seem to be that of genuine amusement. (Now imagine if director Carney managed to coax Ceelo into bringing his Persian cat and cockatoo onto set as well!) Adam Levine plays a rockstar, which isn’t that much of a stretch for him… he uses his facial hair to represent his character’s disconnection and growth rather well, going from clean cut dude, to sporting a 70s porno moustache and then a full grown Duck Dynasty beard. It’s really quite something to look at. We should also praise the mother-daughter combo of Keener and Steinfeld, as they add lots of colour and challenge to Dan’s life. However, the standout character goes to James Corden’s Steve, the busking best friend of Greta. Corden is flat out hilarious at times yet also manages to be Greta’s emotional rock in her times of difficulty… which is a pretty hard balancing act to pull off. That also has much to do with Carney’s direction, as he is terrific at being able to milk that one extra glance or two for some pleasant laughs along the way. It’s a very tiny detail but it’s also one that greatly enhances the film.
And of course, this is a music based film.. so we gotta talk about the music, right? GOOD NEWS: THE MUSIC IS STELLAR. WHY? BECAUSE OF THIS GUY, THAT’S WHY.
That guy is Gregg Alexander, the guy who fronted New Radicals, the legendary one-hit wonder in some circles, maker of one of ’90s pop’s best albums and now, reclusive songwriter. Alexander, together with fellow ex-Radical Danielle Brisbois plus Nick Lashley, Rick Nowels and Nick Southwood are the people behind the movie’s stellar music. A collection of melodiously, irresistibly hummable songs with some very meaningful lyrics. Seriously, it’s been 4 days since I’ve seen the film and I still can’t stop humming those songs. Of course, it doesn’t hurt to have Adam Levine belt out the movie’s signature track, “Lost Stars” with gusto in what is one of the most emotional ending scenes. (In a slightly funny ironic twist, Dave Kohl’s “sell out” songs seem to resemble Maroon 5’s current musical direction.) Keira Knightley though, is the surprise. She belts out her songs rather well and in a controlled manner, which totally suits her character’s skills with wordplay. Not going for the vocal theatrics was probably the best decision to make here as her delivery, while not spectacular, is quietly vulnerable and you can just clearly empathise with her character’s pain and hopes rising from the ordeal she went through.
Not so cool:
There’s really not a lot to complain here. Maybe the whole “two strangers meeting each other and changing their lives” thing is kind of cliche but guess what, Dan and Greta didn’t even fall in love! Hurray to defying cliches!
Begin Again has so, so much going for it. A pleasant story, great characters, a fantastic cast and infectiously karaoke-able songs stand out as the main attractions. But perhaps above all else, it’s the movie’s commitment to music that really impresses. Watching this flick gives off the vibe that it doesn’t matter if you’re into reggae, punk rock, metal or folk… music is truly universal. There’s also something for the hardcore music nerds, who will most likely pick up on the little truths presented about the recording industry, including topics such as image and distribution. In a rather poignant scene, Mark Ruffalo’s Dan remarks that the most banal things in life are given extra meaning when accompanied by music. That’s especially true in the movie’s emotional ending scene and it’s something that I couldn’t have put down into words better myself. The connections we form, the memories we make, good or bad, they’re all profoundly impacted by the soundtrack of our lives… and this film captures the essence of that beautifully. Ultimately, Begin Again is a charming, slick effort that still retains lots of indie charm and could very well turn out to be the Spotify generation’s High Fidelity.