An old stereotype says that, deep down, every movie star really wants to be a rock star, and every rock star wants to be a movie star. With Begin Again, John Carney’s seeming attempt to recapture the shaggy success of his Once, everyone gets their wish, along with an added helping of hipster cool. How “real” are quirky New York bars, and their underappreciated busking musicians? How “authentic” are successful artists – already snug in cavernous, meticulously decorated studio apartments – willing to give that all up for “true” art? Begin Again, with all its Hollywood shine, is all too eager to let you know.
Down and out A&R man Dan (Mark Ruffalo) – the indie label he shepherded to great success with partner Yasiin Bey is now too square for his kind of alcohol-soaked rakishness – struggles to make something, anything work. He doesn’t know his daughter (Hailee Steinfeld), and tangles with his estranged wife (Catherine Keener). He stumbles upon Greta (Keira Knightley), a shy English songwriter who accompanied anomalously famous musician Dave (Adam Levine, making his film debut!) to New York City only to find herself lonelier than she expected. Together, they decide to record an album on their own terms, recruiting a rag-tag group of musicians and calling in some favors from the people Dave has already made famous (most notably, a whimsical Cee Lo Green). Certainly, nobody knows the troubles they’ve seen.
Thankfully – and surprisingly – Begin Again isn’t a romance so much as romantic and, shot on Red, it’s a beautiful movie. The Big Apple (Does anyone call it that anymore?) is realized much like a character in the story (Ugh, though), and every location is rich with detail and texture. The dialogue is occasionally clever, and the chemistry between all players is present, the best between Knightley and Ruffalo. Ethereally beautiful, it’s easy to see how anyone facing oblivion might find salvation in someone that looks like Keira Knightley and her (decent, I think?) voice.
But, likely in its winding way toward the big screen, and the involvement of movie stars (and pop stars looking to get their start on the big screen), Begin Again falls prey to some pretty hoary tropes. Of course Greta and Dan’s wayward daughter connect. Of course Dan and his daughter bond over a shared love of music. Of course New York is filmed like a character in a movie about the big city.
Because Begin Again is a movie about great music – music the filmmakers can’t be entirely sure will be embraced as “great” by the real world – long sections of its middle are dedicated to montage. Putting the band together, figuring out where to play, what to play, putting the musicians together and finally recording the album (Like artists, man!) is set to agreeable singles meant more for the soundtrack album than the story. Even its singsong scene structure – different sections are told from different points of view until they meet somewhere along the way – is easily digestible. It can be a bit a drag, though, feeling longer than its unchallenging running time. However…
Begin Again is the type of movie music lovers will eat up with a spoon, as it does speak – legitimately, despite its built-in phoniness – to the emotional impact of music, and the way it ties culture, and people, together. That’s the stuff it gets right. The stuff it gets wrong – that pretty people doing pretty things is somehow supposed to generate conflict and drama – is what moviegoers will likely be enthralled by. The drama’s right there on the surface, and we’re told about it. Incessantly. We’re told how good the music Greta writes is, and we’re told how produced the music her partner Adam Levine (!) is, and that he’s “lost the song”. But none of that really means anything if one digs any deeper than just that shiny surface. There’s never really any question whether all these people will be “successful”, especially as they each have their own barometers for success. Greta’s pal from back home Steve (an always-welcome James Corden) seems perfectly happy in his tiny apartment and grungy equipment, just playing tunes for the people. Talented performers telling a comforting story in an attractive way? Really, what’s not to adore?
Begin Again, an Exclusive Media, Likely Story production distributed by The Weinstein Company, is 104 minutes long and rated R. (Image ©2014 The Weinstein Company)
Begin Again is the type of movie music lovers will eat up with a spoon, as it does speak – legitimately, despite its built-in phoniness – to the emotional impact of music, and the way it ties culture, and people, together. That’s the stuff it gets right. The stuff it gets wrong – that pretty people doing pretty things is somehow supposed to generate conflict and drama – is what moviegoers will likely be enthralled by.