“Begin Again” sees Irish writer-director John Carney on a larger canvas, revisiting themes from his 2006 hit “Once” – chief among them the emotional connectivity of music. Swapping Dublin for New York and trading a single couple for a group of people all trying to mend broken bonds or forge new ones, the touching film again trades in non-cynical heart-on-its-sleeve sentiment and deploys a series of gentle ballads, a number of them performed by star Keira Knightley.
With “Once,” Carney tapped into every shoestring-budget filmmaker’s dream. Shot in 17 days for $160,000, the micro-movie musical bounced from Sundance to become a Fox Searchlight sleeper hit, grossing $9.5 million domestically. It won an Academy Award for “Falling Slowly,” one of the achingly beautiful songs by Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova. Subsequently adapted for the stage, “Once” landed on Broadway in 2012, winning eight Tony Awards including best musical.
With “Begin Again,” Carney demonstrates that the disarming emotional candor and intimacy of the earlier film was no fluke. He is a wholesale believer in the healing power of music. The director also has a profound respect for the way music is created, manifested here in a rejection of processed pop and its accompanying marketing concerns, and an embrace of back-to-basics purity.
Knightley plays Greta, a Brit hauled up onstage in a bar to do one of her songs at an open mic night by her friend from home, Steve. The melancholy number doesn’t exactly wow the crowd, with the exception of enraptured drunk music industry A&R veteran Dan Mulligan (Mark Ruffalo). The film then rewinds twice to approach the same scene from different perspectives, revealing the day from hell that pushed Dan to drown his sorrows and the series of events that left Greta miserable in Manhattan.
Separated from his wife Miriam (Catherine Keener), Dan struggles to maintain a rapport with their teenage daughter Violet (Hailee Steinfeld). He’s out of touch with how the music biz works in the digital age and hasn’t brought in a bankable new act in years, causing him to be kicked to the curb by Saul (Mos Def), the money side of the indie record label he founded.
Greta came to New York a few months back with her songwriting partner and boyfriend of five years, Dave Kohl (Adam Levine). As his success spiraled after one of his songs was featured in a hit movie, Greta was cheated on and left behind.
In a scene that appears influenced by the progressive layering of instruments over an acoustic foundation in the lush orchestrations of “Once” onstage, Dan hears and sees the potential for enhancement in Greta’s song. Despite her ambivalence to the proposal of cutting a demo with him or anyone, and her eagerness to flee back to England, Greta sticks around. When Saul passes on funding the project, Dan hatches a plan to make an ambient-sound album recorded all over the city.
Lovely chemistry between Knightley and Ruffalo enriches their many scenes together, while Ruffalo and Keener share different sparks that suggest the deep residual attractions of an 18-year marriage. Mostly off the radar since her amazing performance in “True Grit,” Steinfeld balances teen attitude with insecurity.
In his first film role, Levine keeps the tattoo sleeve covered but shows the clueless ways in which Dave’s fledgling rock star ego is an obstacle to him being reconciled with Greta. Levine’s fellow “The Voice” alumni Cee Lo Green also makes an amusing appearance as a hip-hop star who acknowledges an enormous debt to Dan, greeting him with some cheesy freestyle rap.
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