Director: John Carney
Starring: Keira Knightley, Mark Ruffalo, Adam Levine, Catherine Keener, Hailee Steinfeld, James Corden, CeeLo Green, Mos Def
Running Time: 104 min.
★★★ ½ (out of ★★★★)
John Carney's musical dramedy Begin Again is so effortlessly fun and enjoyable that it's easy to get swept away in the songs and forget that it actually raises some interesting questions. What exactly does it mean to "sell out?" How does stardom change someone? What should drive an artist to make music? Why is the music industry collapsing? None of these questions are overtly asked or answered, but they're present the whole time, bubbling beneath the surface of what we think will be a fluffy rom-com.While it's become a cliche to call any movie "a love letter to" whatever (in this case music and New York City) this one actually sort of is. But it's definitely not a romance. It's about our relationship to music, told through that music and two characters who are about as real and authentic as it gets.
There's one pivotal scene that serves as the jumping-off point for the entire story and the moment our lead characters' lives converge. It's so important we see it twice, from two different perspectives. Struggling singer-songwriter Gretta James (Keira Knightley) is performing in a dingy, Lower East Side bar in NYC and she's fairly unimpressive. Not terrible mind you, but singing exactly how you'd expect someone of her limited experience level to. But the second time we see and hear that same performance it's through the eyes and ears of divorced, alcoholic record label executive Dan Mulligan (Mark Ruffalo) whose best days in the industry are behind him, having just been kicked out of the company he co-founded.
Though drunk, Dan doesn't experience what everyone in the bar does, but instead what could be, adding sounds in his head and watching all the dormant instruments on stage come to life, invisibly playing on their own. He's conducting his own symphony with Gretta as its centerpiece, imagining the kind of album they'll make and release together. Of course, she thinks he's nuts. And the best thing about it is how she's completely right, but also almost equally nuts for going along for the ride. It's an incredible scene that not only highlights the power of music, but recognizes the role of producer, whose job it often is to see potential when no one else does.
The film's structure is kind of interesting, with the story not technically under way until that bar performance. Separate flashbacks show how Gretta and Dan got to this point, with neither exactly riding high lately. She's broken up with longtime boyfriend and songwriting partner Dave Kohl (Adam Levine), just as he exploded as a mainstream star. Temporarily crashing at her old friend Steve's (James Corden), she's considering a move back to England, worrying there may be nothing left for her in New York. Dan is meanwhile battling best friend and business partner Saul (Mos Def) over the direction of their record label and losing. He's also confronted with the harsh reality that his rebellious teen daughter Violet (Hailee Steinfeld) and ex-wife Miriam (Catherine Keener) resent him for walking out, rebuffing his latest attempt to be a father again at his convenience. It's here where Gretta and Dan's paths cross at the bar, with him eventually convincing her to record an album after much prompting. The catch is that they'll do it publicly at various locations across New York City, funding it themselves and recruiting a team of talented unknown musicians. They're an unusual pair faced with a difficult challenge, but the project eventually proves to be a first step toward rebuilding their lives.
For a while you're so lost in the music that it becomes just as easy to forget there's a very deliberate plot, though not necessarily one that adheres to the strict formula we're used to. Most of the music is written by former New Radicals frontman Gregg Alexander of "You Get What You Give" fame. While that 1998 single cemented the band as a one-hit wonder, these tunes not only sound nothing like it, but could almost be considered his response to the industry that facilitated its existence. It's a lot closer to the acoustic, singer-songwritery sound found in Carney's previous music-based film, Once, and they're well performed by both Knightley and Levine. They offer up dueling versions of the ballad "Lost Stars," which would seem to be a lock for a Best Original Song Oscar nod despite that exclusive category's often crazy qualifications.
The screenplay succeeds in part by not making Gretta some great undiscovered talent, but a bar singer who probably wouldn't be signed by a major label based on her vocal ability. But the true irony is that less talented artists are signed everyday for reasons having nothing to do with their music, as much of that can just be fixed in the studio. This discussion of style over substance is nicely addressed in the film, with Dan realistically written as a smart producer who knows this, but thinks his profit-hungry business partner has gone too far in the other direction. He's probably right, but also too much of a mess to articulate it or try to compromise in any way. True to his skill set, Dan knows Gretta's limitations and what needs to be done to work around them to give her the confidence to complete the album. And that just might be the sharpest aspect of Carney's script.
Knightley's an odd but inspired choice for this role since on paper it wouldn't seem like it could work at all. Strong but never transcendent in everything in which she's appeared, most of her previous performances have elicited a respectable golf clap rather than an enthusiastic rave from this reviewer. That many still closely associate her with period dramas would seem to only increase the difficulty in picturing her as a hipster musician performing at bars on the Lower East Side. Well, consider this that enthusiastic rave since Knightley connects in a way she hasn't before, making Gretta instantly relatable and recognizable to the viewer within minutes of her first appearance. Charmingly adorable and sarcastic, but never cloying, she's easy to root for and Knightley is just good enough a singer to sell this. It wouldn't work for the story if she were any better or worse vocally, so in that sense Carney really knew what he was doing in casting her opposite Ruffalo.
Such a chameleon that it's hard to believe he's the same actor who recently played wrestler Dave Schultz in Foxcatcher, Ruffalo is carving out a career similar to Philip Seymour Hoffman's in that he can invisibly step into anyone. Dan's a walking disaster who's basically torpedoing his life and career, selfishly pushing everyone away. This shouldn't be a likable guy. Then just watch what Ruffalo subtly does with him to win us over. But if there's a weak area in the movie it's the sub-plot involving Dan's inability to connect with his estranged daughter, though in fairness nothing about it is handled poorly. It's just kind of there, with my indifference undoubtedly stemming from having just seen Hailee Steinfeld play nearly the same exact angry teen role opposite Kevin Costner in 3 Days To Kill and it's starting to feel old hat.
While the casting of Maroon 5's Adam Levine is the decision most likely to induce eye-rolling amongst more discerning viewers, his actual performance doesn't, strangely accumulating more facial hair the more unlikable he becomes. By taking this on he also opens himself up to the criticism that he's just "playing himself," as Dave Kohl (not Grohl) could easily be described in the same unflattering terms sometimes ascribed to him by dissenters. But the movie's more interesting than that, looking beyond the reductive reasoning that Kohl's just simply a self-absorbed sell-out. It's into the "how" and "why." Are these people born or made? Would anyone who experiences a taste of success or fame automatically re-prioritize? Without spoiling too much, toward the end of the film we're given the rare treat of actually seeing an artist seemingly "sell-out" mid-performance, if that's indeed what's happening. Based on what we see here, Levine just might be a slightly more interesting performer as Kohl than as himself. It's not that he lacks talent in reality, just that the musical material his character's given does seem to suit his singing style better.
The biggest question explored is the artist's purpose for making music. Is it done out of the love of the art or the having that art reach millions of people and bring them happiness? Or maybe it's just about the money. Some of the best scenes occur between Gretta and Kohl, including an early one in which she slaps him for what seems like no reason, until we realize both characters communicate with an unspoken language that exists between songwriters. They got there first and are a step ahead of us, knowing something we don't. How often does that happen? I'm still not sure the film's eventual solution to what ails the music industry is the right answer, but it works for this circumstance. The timely issue of artist compensation is rarely even addressed in movies, so I'll take it. Let's just say what Dan and Gretta eventually do with their album works only for a certain type of artist, while calling into question how much profit artists actually see when at the mercy of a record label. The only exception is if you're so big that you are the label, or in someone like Taylor Swift's case, bigger than it.
This project was formerly known under it's working title, Can a Song Save Your Life?, which is not only more memorable, but a better encapsulation of what it's actually about. Given its themes, it's almost painfully ironic that commerce won out and this was instead released with a generic title that practically oozes corporate blandness. Luckily, the end result does anything but that. Under normal circumstances we know how a feel-good musical drama like this wraps up. We know who Gretta should end up with and what should happen with Dan's career and family. Carney is refreshingly uninterested in any of this because it's irrelevant. It's not about exes or shattered relationships and he doesn't even "go there" with Gretta and Dan's relationship even though he conceivably could and get away with it. It's just that there's no reason to and it would be a betrayal of what the story's really about: The music. It never takes a backseat. Much like the album being produced in it, Begin Again tries and succeeds in making the absolute most of what it has.