John Carney’s new film BEGIN AGAIN is a lot like his break out hit ONCE, so much so that I keep thinking of it in my head as ONCE AGAIN. This isn’t a bad thing, as the subtle touch writer/director Carney brought to ONCE made that film delightful and wholly original, in addition to supplying us with a hit soundtrack and an Oscar-winning song, “Falling.” One of the most original and refreshing aspects of Once was, despite the obvious sexual tension between the lead characters, and mutual attraction, they never got together, and seemed destined to leave it at that, a moment frozen in time, once… BEGIN AGAIN gives us another set of musical minds, from two different worlds who again learn to make music together. With great performances from Mark Ruffalo as a desperate-for-a-discovery music producer and Keira Knightley as a singer-songwriter unwilling to compromise, and set of ready-made hits, Begin Again seems a clear audience pleaser, as well as a future Broadway Musical. And really, there is nothing that should stop that, the film is joyous and full of well-crafted drama between the leads, their exes (Catherine Keener and Adam Levine), and Ruffalo’s daughter (played by True Grit’s Hailee Steinfeld).
BEGIN AGAIN follows Gretta (Keira Knightley) and her long-time boyfriend Dave (Adam Levine), college sweethearts and songwriting partners who decamp from the UK to New York when Levine’s character lands a deal with a major label. Of course, he soon strays, hooking up with an A&R girl on tour, and leaves Gretta on her own. Dan (Mark Ruffalo), is just as lost, having been forcibly removed from the label he started because he seemed uninterested in the business aspects of music. The film premiered last year at TIFF, under a terrible title, “Can A Song Save Your Life?” – which fortunately has been drop-kicked for this release.
The most memorable moment of the film comes early, as Ruffalo discovers Knightley in a cruddy bar and imagines the discarded instruments around her joining in and filling out her song. It is a fascinating peak into the mind of a true creative, and it is in these musical revelations that BEGINA AGAIN finds its strength. Another great bit is when Steinfeld joins the band on guitar for one song, after her mother tells Ruffalo she’s really quite bad. Her blistering guitar solo uplifts the recording into something triumphant – it is in fact the best song in the film. Which is saying a lot because there are a lot of really great songs in the film, although they lack the singular voice that Once had. This may be part of the story as one of the things Begin Again is about is finding your voice as a songwriter, as well as the way a song exists in context. In fact, a major plot element is the recording of each of Knightley’s songs in found locations in and around New York City (in a subway station, on a roof top, etc.) Apparently this tactic makes her songs more ‘authentic’ than those of her ex-boyfriend (Adam Levine in a star-making, brutally awkward spot-on performance) who grows an Amish beard to gets to his roots and calls his album that he wrote on the road, ‘On the Road.’ The audience gets treated to a song Knightley writes for him on piano, then he takes and turns into over-produced schlock. I really hope that version of the song is on the soundtrack, because it’s like someone took John Newman and turned him up to 11, but turned his ‘soul’ down to 3. Even when he delivers a tamed-down version (for him) in concert, it’s clear he’s lost the point of the song.
I don’t know why I’m holding back on positivity in this review. I really enjoyed BEGIN AGAIN, and I’m sure you will as well. I even called a songwriter I know after the screening and told him he had to see the film, because it was so inspiring. I guess I just wish there didn’t have to be such a recognizable actor playing the lead. It is somewhat painful to watch so much cutting around Keira Knightley’s obvious not-playing of guitar (although she does sing her own songs).
Why not just find an unknown? Or another musician like the Adam Levine choice. I’d love to see Lisa Loeb if you need a somewhat name, or someone fresh like the amazing Meg Myers. You’ve got Ruffalo’s name, and then a great supporting cast like Keener and Mos Def (as Ruffalo’s label partner), why does the film need Knightley? Casting CeeLo Green as friend of Ruffalo’s also seemed forced, especially when it was unclear if it was supposed to be CeeLo or some other artist that looks and acts exactly like CeeLo. And there is nothing wrong Knightley’s performance at all. But in ONCE, it was unmistakable those ‘actors’ had written those songs and they meant a lot to them. Begin Again’s songs, for all the movie is about creating them, arrive a little too polished to really capture the true grit of the process. According to Billboard, the film features songs “co-written by Gregg Alexander, Danielle Brisebois, Glen Hansard” – Hansard is the man behind the tracks in Once, but this is not the same film.
So the film is almost brilliant, but in the end, comes off a little disappointing. The lack of conflict through the entire film is something that gets you near the end – all the drama is in the side stories (Ruffalo w/ his daugher, ex-wife, Knightley w/ her ex-boyfriend). There isn’t much of any between the two leads, they are on the same page from the beginning and have a very vanilla non-sexual relationship, which, while refreshing, does not leave much at stake between them. There is a nice bit of non-traditional structure, when we see each story start until they intersect at the club, but that is soon forgotten after that moment (i.e. the other 80% of the film). Another thing that bothered me is the tacked-on ending after the credits begin that really seemed to be ‘paying-off’ a different film than the one I just watched. Finally, there is an incredibly sloppy continuity error where the ‘band’ is shown rehearsing before half of the band joins the band. All of this sort of adds up to a film that is almost a great follow-up to ONCE, but ends up sort of in its shadow.