Begin Again (2014)
Rated – R
Directed by John Carney
Starring: Mark Ruffalo, Keira Knightley, Adam Levin, Hailee Steinfeld
John Carney gave us the magical, musical film Once in 2007. Several years later he tries his hand at the romantic-musical flick, but this time it’s set in New York City and boasts a talented cast instead of newcomers. Unfortunately, the result is disappointing.
In the opening scene we hear Greta (Knightley) playing one of her songs at an open mic in an East Village bar. She’s nervous but sings a heart-felt, sweet song while picking the acoustic guitar, which barely makes it over the constant chatter. She’s embarrassed but there was one person who was impressed by her performance, a record label talent scout. This guy is Dan (Ruffalo) who has recently been fired from the label because of his inability to find the next big artist, but he’s not interested in finding a pop star. He wants someone unique and authentic and he feels that Greta is that artist.
The set-up is fine, but the way the film predictably unfolds makes it forgettable. It’s funny how Greta and Dan are in pursuit of breaking musical tradition to maintain their honesty in their songs, but Begin Again is more of the same we’ve seen hundreds of time before. On top of that, the music is okay at best. Knightley doesn’t have much vocal range but does her best with a smile and her sweet-spoken voice. The lyrics are quite elementary, with prose that could litter a high schooler’s notebook.
The main problem is the lack of effective emotion throughout. Dan and Greta both have had terrible heart-breaks in their past, but the film does little to really make us feel their pain. In the first half hour of the film we see how Greta’s rock-star boyfriend (Levine) falls for another girl while on the road. The whole sequence is lackluster, partly due to Levine’s weak performance but also due to the situation. What worked so well in Once is that we didn’t exactly know what happened with its characters’ past. We knew they each had a partner that didn’t work out, but they brought each other back to life. Here in Begin Again, we dive into both Greta and Dan’s past of exes and betrayal, but it all falls flat.
The part of the film that makes Begin Again worthwhile is the idea of live recording Greta’s songs at different locations all over New York City. The montages of the full band playing her songs while Dan runs the show are the true charming moments. Why? Those scenes were the most natural. It felt like these were a group of misfits trying to make a name for themselves in the busy and crowded city where it’s easy to get lost, and they achieve exactly what they set out to do. These scenes are shot beautifully as well, whether they’re playing in the subway, on the roof of a building, under a bridge or in an empty alley.
In the end, everyone finds their way to exactly where they wanted to go, which is quite the opposite compared to Once. The thing is that Dan and Greta don’t seem to share that connection that makes us want them to end up together. Sure, they’re about fifteen years apart, but the lack of affection makes the scenes they share seem less important. The message here is that music can save anyone, no matter where they are or what dilemma they’re in. It’s a great message, but the road to that conclusion needed a lot of work.