John Carney’s latest feature doesn’t have the same “lightning-in-a-bottle” factor as Once, but it’s another satisfying musical fable.
That’s what I love about music: all these banalities suddenly turn into effervescent pearls.
Begin Again is a romantic comedy without the romance. Not to say that the film’s not about love, because it is — but it’s a more humanistic, mushy, capital-L “Love,” where the language is music. Like the indie hit Once, writer/director John Carney’s latest feature is an effervescent musical fable about two lost souls who complete each other through song, but where the first film was a shaggy, handheld exercise that felt like real, painful life unfolding before the lens, Begin Again (formerly known as Can a Song Save Your Life?) is a much more polished affair.
For Once, Carney, bassist for Glen Hansard’s former band The Frames, cast his friend alongside another non-actor, Czech pianist Marketa Irglova, and sat back and watched the sparks fly. It wasn’t a traditional musical, but it was about music, in a way that was organic and lovely and true. The songs (including Oscar winner “Falling Slowly”) were achingly beautiful, and Hansard’s brand of Irish folk-rock, paired with Irglova’s haunting vocals, gave the whole film a sensation of unrepeatable magic. The plot was thin and the conflict threadbare, but its simplicity played like a fairy tale, centering on a lonely busker who falls for a girl in a music shop and convinces her to make a record with him.
Swap out a few nouns and that’s the exact same plot as Begin Again, only this time Carney landed a pair of genuine Hollywood stars as the leads, in Keira Knightley and Mark Ruffalo. The latter is Dan, a broken-down A&R man who has just been cast out of the record label he co-founded, just like the house his wife and daughter live in. When he’s not listening to awful, mailed-in CD demos, he’s roving from dive to dive in a perpetual state of hangover, obsessively looking for that “new sound.” And by accident, he thinks he finds it in Gretta, an English waif of a singer-songwriter, played by Knightley. Her boyfriend and writing partner, Dave (Maroon 5’s Adam Levine), is becoming a major star, which not only leaves her behind but romantically betrayed, and she’s hours before boarding a flight out of New York when Dan gives her his card and begs her to come take a meeting at his label.
Knightley is incredibly appealing here — she’s vulnerable, yet strong, and gives off an air of unassuming but undeniable talent. Her singing voice is thin but the musical arrangements support it well, and it’s obvious why Dan would be drawn to her; when he first hears her performing standout track “A Step You Can’t Take Back” on a solo guitar, Gretta having been strong-armed into participating in this open mic by a friend (James Corden), Carney steps briefly (but cleverly) into fantasy as Dan “hears” the other instruments playing around her and catches a vision for her potential. It’s a neat trick that tells us more about Dan as a character and artist in his own right than any dialogue ever could.
That “show, don’t tell (unless it’s in song)” approach continues as Dan sets about helping Gretta produce a demo, calling on loyal friends (including one played by Cee Lo Green) and mounting an audacious scheme to record every track live in different locations around the city. And once the film reaches this point — after a overcomplicated nesting-doll structure in the first few reels — it really begins to soar, and we experience the unbridled joy of musical creation and collaboration. The musicians they pick up along the way barely have names, but each one — the afro’d bass player, the nerdy violinist — gets standout moments of enthusiasm during this admittedly bonkers project. Traffic sounds? Subways? Keep them on the recording! Kids in the street? Just make them backup vocals! (Cops? Well…run!) It’s the kind of thing that only works in the movies, and certainly not any going for realism, but so easily does the film pick you up and float you along that you’d have to be truly jaded to care.
The songs from Gregg Alexander, Carney and a handful of co-writers, while not up to the heart-piercing standards of Once (though that may be my own bias, as that soundtrack takes regular spins in my car and at my desk), are still terrific — the “hit” single, as it were, “Lost Stars,” sees a variety of iterations throughout the film and becomes a metaphor for the soul of the art itself: Dave records it for his latest album but gives Gretta the writing credit, which only upsets her all the more as his calculated “stadium pop” arrangement seems to miss the entire point of the song. By contrast, Dan is entirely about authenticity, though he mocks Gretta at the beginning of the film for her tomboy image — “we have to get them in the door,” he argues, “and then let the music do the work!”
Ruffalo gives a multi-faceted performance, playing the recognizable beats of “the mad genius whose personal life is a wreck” and giving them new life, fully buying into the film’s message of hope — not that things will be perfect, but that things can be better, simply by doing what you’re gifted to do alongside people you care about. He yearns for that human connection, and receives it from Gretta — but not in the way he expects, or the way you think he will given the film’s genre. For her part, she learns what it means to strike out on her own and defy categorization, while still taking the help offered from her talented friends. I suspect Carney sees a bit of himself in both characters, as do I, and perhaps you will too. I wish more “romances” were as full of love as Begin Again.