Year of Release: 2014 Directed by John Carney. Starring Mark Ruffalo, Keira Knightley, Hailee Steinfeld, James Corden, Adam Levine, and Catherine Keener.
My biggest complaint with Begin Again doesn’t even concern the film itself. The only major criticism I have is the title. The filmmakers should have stuck with the original: Can a Song Save Your Life. While that title does have a certain degree of awkward cheesiness to it, it fits the film perfectly. For one, the film itself has some awkwardly cheesy moments, and secondly, the film is not about starting over but instead about one moment, one person, or one song that can completely change the direction of one’s life.
However, I have no intention to hold a bland generic title against any film, and Begin Again is an absolute joy from start to finish, even during the parts that don’t work quite as well as others. I think a few more of the songs should have been diegetic rather than underscoring, and as much as I love Casablanca, having Keira Knightley call “As Time Goes By” her favorite movie song was weird, especially when there were so many choices that would have better reflected the conflict of the film. I was personally hoping she would say “The Rainbow Connection.” However, it is also pointless to hold that against the film. While director John Carney does not quite recapture the intimate magic of Once, he comes close.
The film opens with Greta (Keira Knightley, who sings surprisingly well) in a New York bar, where her guitarist friend Steve (James Corden) ushers her onstage to perform one of her songs, which she says is “for anyone who’s ever been alone in the city.” The song is “A Step You Can’t Take Back,” which has been the main song used to underscore the trailers. The arrangement that opens the film is just Knightley singing accompanied by simple guitar chords, not the fully orchestrated version used in all the ads. At the end of the performance, the crowd in the bar is paying no attention to her, except Dan (Mark Ruffalo) who looks thunderstruck.
The film flashes back to earlier that day, revealing Dan is an ex-record producer, having been fired that morning for failing to sign any new talent in awhile. Prior to being fired, an hilarious sequence showcased his desperate searching for a new client among nothing but crappy demo tapes. After picking up his daughter Violet (Hailee Steinfeld) from school, with whom he has to bolt out of a bar because Dan has no money on him, he drops Violet off with his estranged wife (Catherine Keener), and then heads to another bar to get drunk that evening. When Dan hears Greta sing, he is given a glimmer of hope, since her song and her talent have given him a chance to turn his career around.
At this point the film repeats the opening scene of Knightley performing “A Step You Can’t Take Back.” However, the performance is shot from Dan’s perspective, as the audience hears what he hears: a fully orchestrated pop song with guitar, drums, piano, violin, cello, and bass. It’s a brilliant choice to bookend the opening segment of Dan hitting rock bottom, showing how something simple and unpolished can be transformed into an elegant, professional work of art while maintaining the simplicity and roughness that originally made it endearing, a theme which will be important in a later confrontation.
As a force of habit, after hearing her sing, Dan immediately goes over to Greta, introduces himself, offers his card, and asks to producer her. She is shocked and skeptical, and turns him down. If this were a standard Hollywood film, the storyline would then take this trajectory: Dan deceives her regarding his unemployment, yet persuades her to record anyway. When she eventually learns that he does not have a label, a huge fight threatens the success of the music they have recorded; however, they overcome that setback and make a great album anyway.
Other than making a good album, Begin Again follows none of those clichés. It is refreshing how original and lifelike this film is. There are no elaborate deceptions, no awkward unbelievable romance subplots, no standard setbacks threatening the success of everything that was undertaken. All the characters are totally believable, and the storyline follows a natural path for human beings who are committed to their work and behave with decency while struggling with some flaws.
Obviously, Dan does persuade Greta to record an album; however, he perks her interest by telling her the truth of his situation, admitting he only gave her the producer spiel out of habit. Badly broken herself, Greta takes a day to think over his offer, and when she accepts, Dan cannot convince his former label to produce her. So he comes up with an ingenious solution: record outdoors in different areas of New York City. Greta’s friend Steve has a full studio’s worth of recording equipment. Dan recruits musicians who are willing to work for a cut of the final profit: a pianist working as a ballet accompanist and a cellist and violinist from Manhattan School of Music who are thrilled to play anything that’s “not f**king Vivaldi.” *
Before Greta agreed to record the album, the film has a flashback to show why she is depressed and alone in New York. Like the flashback showing how Dan hit bottom, her flashback is framed by two performances of the same song, “Lost Stars,” which she had composed for her ex-boyfriend Dave (Adam Levine). Greta and Dave had come to New York for an album deal for Dave, after his success composing a film soundtrack. While there, she discovered he was cheating on her. That knowledge transforms “Lost Stars” from a pretty tune to a poignant reflection of Greta’s sorrow.
Since Greta was depressed after Dave’s infidelity, her old boyfriend Steve allowed her to crash at his apartment until she booked a flight back to England. Fortunately, Steve forced her to perform at the bar, Dan heard her, and she agreed to work with them on an album.
Like Once, Begin Again is about a once in a lifetime opportunity for decent, empathetic human beings to pursue their art and make something unique and magical with it. While on the journey, the characters’ enthusiasm and diligence for their art carries over into other aspects of their lives. There is no tense drama or overblown indecision, but rather quiet moments of grace and generosity that are touching and inspiring in their direct simplicity. The healing of wounds between father and daughter is a beautiful scene, especially when Greta forces the two mediocre musicians to record a small part on one of the album tracks. An old friend of Dan’s pays for two musicians for the album, simply because he wants to help out.
Are such acts unbelievable? Or is the perfect timing of events too coincidental and stretching credibility? I don’t think so. One of the best experiences I had during my undergraduate occurred because I happened to be walking out to the parking lot simultaneously with three conductors who were desperately looking for a replacement celeste player for a concert next week, and with very little though I said, “I can do it.” Begin Again captures the joy and excitement of moments like that.
*While I am one of the few classically trained musicians who kind of enjoys Vivaldi, especially because playing continuo on Vivaldi can be simple yet fun, I can totally attest to the accuracy of that statement.
Content Advisory: Frequent vulgar language, occasionally quite strong; some profanity; mild sexual references; and depiction of alcohol abuse. MPAA rating: R
Suggested Audience: Teens and up with discernment
Personal Recommendation: A