Can a song save your life? That is the original title for Irish filmmaker John Carney’s whimsical new musical, ‘Begin Again.’ Carney is back to recapture the magic of his 2007 indie hit, ‘Once.’ That film starred two unknown actors, garnered almost every festival award, won the Oscar for best original song and was turned into a Broadway musical. With a bigger budget this time around, ‘Begin Again’ manages to hit enough notes to make it a charming romantic musical for the summer. The question on everyone’s mind is whether Keira Knightley can sing? She’s certainly no Jewel or Nora Jones but her soft girlish vocals are convincing and yes, it’s actually her singing.
The opening half of the movie is done with polished finesse. In a dingy New York City bar, we see a drunk record executive Dan (Mark Ruffalo) who has fallen on hard times in the music industry. Drowning his sorrows in alcohol, he hears a songwriter Greta (Keira Knightley) strum a soft ballad dealing with loneliness. Although the crowd is not really paying attention to her, Dan is. He is so taken by Greta’s song that he envisions it accompanied by array of musical instruments on stage. It’s a clever and powerful moment in the film as we see Dan’s creative side take shape before us. Maybe this guy isn’t such a loser after all and knows how to find raw talent out there.
Carney actually uses flashbacks for this pivotal encounter. It’s a clever device as we learn from Dan and Greta’s perspective what brought them to this point in time. What led them to the club? Dan is fired from his hip record company that he helped create. His partner (Mos Def) feels bad about it but realizes it’s best for them to part ways. He’s also dealing with being separated from his wife Miriam (Catherine Keener) and his estranged teen daughter Violet (Hailee Steinfeld). Ruffalo embodies the role with a scruffy charm. As he drives around in a vintage Jaguar, it’s funny as he listens to a manila folder full of music demos. Listening to the insipid tunes, you can see anguish in his face as he desperately tries to regain his mojo.
On the flip side, we get Greta’s perspective on how she ended up at the night club. At the open mic night, Greta’s English buddy Steve (James Corden) embarrasses her by coaxing her to come up on stage and sing. It’s an awkward moment for her but she finally takes the stage. It’s a beautiful, unassuming song she plays on a guitar. Carney then whisks us off to a flashback that explains how Greta ended up at this point in her life. We learn that she comes to the United States to support her American rockstar boyfriend Dave (Adam Levine from Maroon 5). He is on the cusp of stardom. We get to vividly see this when Dave and Greta meet with record executives who are going to handle his musical career. Soon Greta is subjected to being a gofer during the recording sessions like bringing Starbucks coffee to the studio.
As Dave’s career takes off, Greta slowly loses him to all of the perks of fame. It’s a moving scene in their hip apartment as Dave plays a new song and Greta just somehow knows it isn’t about her. It is gut wrenching. Levine is quite good as the narcissistic rockstar. It was a wise choice by Carney to use an actual rock musician. It gives depth to the performance. Fame changes people and it is shown perfectly through Dave and Greta’s crumbling relationship. Greta takes refuge at her friend Steve’s studio apartment. He refuses to let her wallow in self-pity. Corden is extremely appealing as her British friend that allows her to use his shoulder to cry on. Once at the club, you just know that Greta and Dan were destined to meet and make beautiful music together.
That’s the charm of this movie. Carney is so good at getting two people together that have one powerful thing in common – a love for music. Sure, the film gets hokey at times but the ensemble cast is so likable and there are so many special moments throughout the film, you cannot help but get caught up in this charming musical. ‘Begin Again’ is the best musical of the summer and you’ll want to see it again and again. Check out the official trailer http://youtu.be/uTRCxOE7Xzc.