It’s a general rule of thumb in Hollywood to strike while the iron is hot, but Irish filmmaker John Carney doesn’t follow that rule. He waited eight years to release the follow-up to “Once,” a modern-day musical about love, song-writing and the power of music, it even, won an Oscar for the track “Falling Slowly.” It was an organic piece of filmmaking that was a literal ballad to the beauty of song-writing.
He is back on the scene with “Begin Again,” only this time Carney packed his bags for New York City, a place where the musical influence is as abundant as the lost souls looking to express themselves through the medium.
Greta, (Keira Knightley) is sulking on a couch at an open-mic night that appears to be in the NYC borough of Williamsburg, when her friend, Steve (John Corden) invites her on-stage to perform something of her own. Shoulders slumped and lips pursed she stumbles through the number, but a disheveled A&R man Dan (Mark Ruffalo) hears a non-existent musical arrangement of his own contrivance.
Carney wants us to think he is the authority on music as his two actors discuss the authenticity of pop music, by throwing out examples such as Bob Dylan which are far too obvious observations – he even compares her to Norah Jones- gimme a break! However, the interactions are sweet, heartfelt which will cause even the most cynical audience member to fall victim to their charms. Ultimately, the duo decide to collaborate.
We learn that Dan was once the music industry’s it guy, by discovering and producing several successful hip-hop acts with his partner Saul, ( Mos Def) but a few years of bad luck find him picking himself up at the bottom of a bottle. He has been around the music industry long enough to become jaded to where he has a few internal battle scars.
Broken man, haunted past, is an archetype that Ruffalo commands and here his foul-mouthed, take no sh*t attitude matches up very well with Carney’s pen.
Greta has made camp with her college sweetheart/song-writing parter Dave Kohl, (Adam Levine) who bursts on the scene looking and sounding like John Mayer circa 2003. Dave has some of his songs featured in a movie and a hit album on the way so their love falters leaving Greta, broken and alone. Knightley is a bit difficult to believe in the role, but she overcomes the pitfalls and settles in with the purest of approaches to her portrayal of Greta.
Effortless, is the perfect word to sum up the first third of the narrative which moves seamlessly through Greta and Dan’s origin stories, by playing with linear sequences rather unobtrusively.
The two begin a professional courtship, that brings them closer than they could have imagined, and all through music which truly is a magical aspect to the film. To fulfill the needs of the plot description the two are a musical match made in heaven. Their partnership works emotionally, but professionally feels completely feels unearned. Carney acts as if gold records and perfectly written songs that come flying off manufacturing line like they are Big Mac’s, which is contrary to the film’s blood, sweat and tears ideology.
Greta & Dan, who after a few sessions are a duo along the likes of Don Henley, Glen Frey. With the help of a few dollar bills from Dave’s former client TroubleGum (Cee-Lo Green) they put together a group of rag-tag street musicians to record some music guerrilla style on the streets of NYC, which is a genuinely novel concept that could work, it’s just that these recording sessions lack the rawness of The Beatles playing on the rooftop, or even Carney’s previous work in “Once.” It feels more, or less like Fat Albert & The Cosby kids playing classroom instruments. This may be a little harsh on an otherwise thoughtful study on two very likable characters. Carney just completely flubbed the musical recording sequences that are an endless assortment of movie montages.
The saving grace to the music in the film is Adam Levine, who in a rather curious casting choice plays akin to his own public persona. His guitar toting, pop ballad churning performance feels unforced and provides a necessary juxtaposition to Knightley and Ruffalo. Also, keep in mind Levine performs a fantastic rendition of “Lost Stars” in the last five minutes of the film.
“Begin Again” proves to be a emoting vehicle for Knightley and Ruffalo to flex their talents upon Carney’s writing abilities. Even though the film is a mixed bag of hokey/sincere moments the good definitely outweighs the bad which will definitely please audiences. Carney understands the emotional pull of music and how it has the capacity to move listeners all across the world. It doesn’t matter if you are in Dublin, New York City, or small town U.S.A. he shows that a song can save a life.
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