Director John Carney is best known for the movie “Once”, a charming depiction of a street musician in Dublin (Glen Hansard) who meets a recent immigrant (Marketa Irglova). As they get to know one another, each becomes the support network the other needs and she pushes him to make a studio demo of his music, so he can get it out and hopefully get sign to a label. The beautiful thing about “Once”, besides the music, is that these two unique individuals form a deep friendship. If this were a big studio film, they would hook-up and this would dictate the course the story takes. But because this is an independent film and they don’t have to worship to that God, they remain friends throughout. This makes the film seem more natural, more authentic and a lot better.
Carney returns with “Begin Again” a very similar film which could be considered the next chapter of the story he began in “Once”. Even with the similarities, “Again” seems exciting and engaging.
Dan (Mark Ruffalo) is a music executive on a downward spiral. Alcohol has taken over his life and ruined his marriage to Miriam (Catherine Keener), forced him to sell his share of the record label to his partner Saul (Mos Def aka Yasiin Bey) and driven his daughter (Hailee Steinfeld, who I didn’t even recognize) to become your typical teen with divorced parents; rebellious and petulant. One day, on another bender, he ends up in a small bar where Greta (Keira Knightley) is singing some music she wrote. Greta is in a bit of a downward spiral herself. She recently moved to New York with her boyfriend Dave (Adam Levine) who just signed with a music label. As he becomes more famous, in part due to the music she wrote, his eye begins to wander. Greta leaves and moves in with an old friend, Steve (James Corden) who encourages her to sing at the bar that evening. Dan gets excited and wants to do a demo. But he has no money, no studio, no label. This prompts him to come up with a great idea. They will record the songs throughout the city and let the sounds of New York become an instrument on the album.
“Begin Again” is an equally charming film featuring great music, very good performances and an offbeat eccentric story. Unlike “Once”, the story elements in “Begin” seem a little more predictable, but they are handled in a way to make them still seem somewhat unexpected and fresh. Carney begins the story in the nightclub, just as Steve finishes a song. He encourages (goads?) Greta to come on stage and sing. She reluctantly makes her way and begins a song, playing to the disinterested patrons. This is the point that Dan, drunk out of his gourd, walks in. Initially, he is a bit surprised about what he is hearing. He can’t believe his ears; is that really her voice? Are those her lyrics? But then the story rewinds to earlier that day and we concentrate on Dan, witnessing his life and everything that is wrong with it. When the story catches up to the bar and Greta singing her song, we flashback again and watch Greta’s arrival in New York with Dave and everything that happens in their relationship. When the story catches up again, we move forward with Dan and Greta working together to record her album. This is a different and somewhat less generic way of telling this story and it works well to hold our interest.
While their stories may not be the most original, the key here is the performances from Mark Ruffalo and Keira Knightley. Dan is an unapologetic alcoholic. Always carrying a flask, he thinks nothing of spending his bonding time with his 14-year-old daughter in a bar so he can get a drink. And this obsession with alcohol affects and charges his interactions with everyone in his life. Before the film even begins, he has lost his family, his house, his own record label and much more. As we meet him, he is about to hit bottom again, and we are invited to watch the crash. When he listens to Greta sing, we can see the lights go off in his head as the thoughts occur to him, as the plan takes shape. Ruffalo has always been the type of actor who tries to bring a lot of natural, everyman- type of mannerisms to his performances. He is a good looking guy, but he could pass for your neighbor. This makes him the perfect choice to play Dan. It is a rough no-holds-barred performance.
Keira Knightley also allows us into the inner depths of her character, Greta. She is an emotional young woman and a lot of personal stuff happens to her throughout the film. When she begins singing, recording the songs in various parts of New York, it really looks like she is being set free, like the music is letting her forget all about Dave and her troubles. The flip between the two sides happens a few times and it seems like a natural thing for a young woman to do. At one point, she gets drunk and decides to call Dave and sing a song to him. But his voicemail picks up. She sings anyway. The song is all about her feelings and you know it is a bad idea, she won’t get the kind of closure she wants or seeks from this action, but she does it anyway. She doesn’t listen to us. It is nice work from Knightley. I wish she would stick to films like this and “Atonement”. When she appears in big budget blockbusters like the “Pirates” films, she just gets lost and doesn’t really have the opportunity to use her acting skills.
The supporting cast is superb. Hailee Steinfield plays Dan’s young daughter who is trying to grow up too fast. When she meets Greta, she still puts on the tough, older kid persona she is trying to perfect, but Greta was her age once and she understands what the young girl is going through. Catherine Keener plays Miriam, Dan’s ex-wife. Again, a very nice, relatable performance with some great moments showing us flashes of what their relationship once was. She is the ex-wife, she screams, but she is also human and pays attention to what is going on around her. Adam Levine is good as Dave, the musician about to become famous. He falls into the traps you would expect. His performance is the least interesting, but he has a few nice moments showing the conflict within him before we see him fall under the influence of fame and fortune. Mos Def plays Dan’s former partner and it is clearly evident there is a lot of animosity between them. CeeLo Green plays a musician who credits Dan for his start. James Corden (the co-creator of one of my favorite television shows “Gavin & Stacey” and the star of the upcoming “One Chance”, a fun biopic about an unlikely “Britain’s Got Talent” winner) plays Steve, an old friend of Greta, who provides a shoulder to lean on when she needs it. He is a pretty ambiguous character, but adds a nice element by providing comfort to Greta.
The absolute best thing about “Begin Again” is that it follows the mold of Carney’s previous work. Greta and Dan work together to create an album. They spend a lot of time together, walk through the streets of New York at night listening to music, go to each other’s homes. But they are friends and passionate about the work. When it looks like the relationship might tip past that point, like they might become a couple, Carney pulls them back and they continue their friendship. This also helps to make them more believable because good friends spend a lot of time together without hooking up. The thought might occur, but they don’t always succumb to the desire. Because they remain friends, it makes Greta seem more truthful, she is dealing with a painful breakup. Jumping into bed with the first guy she meets doesn’t seem natural for her. It seems Hollywood Studio Big Budget natural. But not like something that usually happens in real life.
“Begin Again” is also a love letter to New York. Much like Woody Allen’s “Manhattan”, “Begin Again” makes the Big Apple a character. When Dan decides to record the songs in different locations, he makes his argument with such passion there is simply no way anyone would ever question his love of the city. When they begin making the album, the variety of locations shows us everything the city has to offer, warts and all, and begins to give a non-native a picture of what makes the metropolis so great.
“Begin Again” is exactly the type of film most people say they wish they could see more of, films about people with real passion with no special effects, no car chases, no violence. So go and see it already. Put your money where your mouth is and encourage people to make more films like this.