(USA, 104 min.)
Written and directed by John Carney
Starring: Keira Knightley, Mark Ruffalo, Hailee Steinfeld, Adam Levine, James Corden, Catherine Keener.
I’ll finally concede that there is something lacking in Anna Karenina: it’s a shame that Keira Knightley doesn’t sing. It turns out that the versatile Miss Knightley has a hidden talent. She has a lovely mellow coffee shop rock voice, and it’s a beautiful lead for the harmony of Begin Again.
This delightfully poppy ditty is the feel good movie of the summer. The infectiously enjoyable numbers of Begin Again offer a soundtrack that rivals recent movie musicals such as Inside Llewyn Davis or The Broken Circle Breakdown, although it might appeal to a much different audience, but it offers some equally memorable compositions. Writer/director John Carney, the man behind the sleeper hit Once, once again tells how songs of love and loss can define a person and ultimately set him or her free.
Begin Again asks if a song can save your life. The great thing about any good art is that a person can relate to a song, film, book, or image at any singular moment in their lives and relate to it in the context of their subjective experience, finding a word, a mood, or a meaning that seems to speak directly to them. It can be a canned recording or an ephemeral live performance, but Begin Again touches audiences by evoking how the arts enrich their lives and connect them with the people around them.
Take, for example, “A Step You Can’t Back,” the first song Keira Knightley performs in Begin Again. Her character, Gretta, reluctantly takes the stage at a New York nightclub when her friend Steve (James Corden) puts her on the spot. She plucks her guitar, sings her heart out, and receives mild indifference from the audience… from her point of view, anyways.
Play the song on repeat, though, and the audience sees why one drunken fool claps louder than the rest. Said drunken fool is Dan (Mark Ruffalo) and Begin Again begins again by revealing the lousy day that led him to Gretta’s song. Dan, in a nutshell, discovers Gretta after losing his job at a record label he co-founded, humiliating his daughter (True Grit’s Hailee Steinfeld), getting wasted, and finding himself at the subway debating to jump. He gets another drink instead.
Cut back to Gretta’s song, which opens with the breathy line, “So you found yourself at the subway.” The hack record producer finds the song as its fate. Carney shows Dan’s rocking’ inspiration by filling out Gretta’s song with an invisible orchestra as Dan feels the song and gets into the producer’s groove by imagining how drums, strings, and a piano can make this song just as magical for the masses as it is for him.
The song has a remarkable payoff for Gretta after the end of an equally bad break-up with her musician boyfriend Dave (Adam Levine of Maroon 5 and “The Voice” fame), who cheated on her when fame went to his head. Finding a down-and-out A & R man looking to begin again is just what Gretta needs to produce her music in her own eclectic way, and Dan proposes they record her songs in the heart of the city. The shrewd movie is just as beautiful cinematically as it is musically.
Begin Again is a hymn to the independent spirit that endures in art and music. The innovative collaboration between Dan and Gretta finds new ways to make music fresh and relevant in the evolving era pre-packaged consumerism and disposable celebrity. Taking ownership of one’s artistic integrity and vision is a greater possibility than ever before, though, since the digital age allows someone like Dan to throw up a spec recording studio with little more than a MacBook, a microphone, some wires, and the trunk of a car. The concept of the outdoor album, however, transforms the soundtrack of Begin Again into the music of the people just as much as it is Gretta’s music.
The ambient noise and the hustle bustle of New York give the sounds and sights of Begin Again an eclectic energy. Gretta, Dan, and their ramshackle band reconfigure public space as a concert hall/recording studio for the masses and offer live performances, sharing their work and inviting the public to be a part of it, and put a spring in the step of the passersby. The musical performances are fun and funky, like a logical extension of Glen Hansard’s lovelorn ballads performed outside St. Stephen’s Green in London, as Gretta and company record by the seat of their pants in alleys, subway stations, and on rooftops. Carney lets the metropolitan flavour of New York add to the harmony of the song as Gretta and Dan touch others with their music.
The sense of possibility and discovery is equally apparent in the strong ensemble of Begin Again. Carney and company shrewdly cast the movie musical with a mix of actors with minimal professional musical experience (i.e.: Knightley and Steinfeld) with professional musicians with few to no screen credits (i.e.: Levine and fellow “Voice” judge CeeLo Green). It works since have the pleasure is watching these characters discover themselves and try something new. Knightley is particularly strong with this standout credit in her filmography. Her beautiful voice—she sounds a bit like Kathleen Edwards—is shy and soulful, and she mirrors Gretta’s emotional arc remarkably through the performance of her songs. Ruffalo is excellent as Dan, especially during the feverish scenes of artistic inspiration as Dan envisions Gretta’s set pieces and becomes as excited as a young upstart. His performance is a highlight.
The two leads are supported by a spirited bunch. Steinfeld is strong and spunky, while Green adds ample street cred, as does Catherine Keener in a small turn as Dan’s estranged wife. (She doesn’t sing.) Levine, finally, makes a capable debut as the dick-ish Dave, although his final rendition of “Lost Stars” is a showstopper that demonstrates how much dramatic work and emotion further the performance of a song.
All the sparkling voices within the busy city, however, shine best in Begin Again’s central love ballad “Lost Stars,” which sees the culmination of Gretta’s artistic vision. Gretta originally writes the song for Dave as a Christmas gift. It’s a plucky acoustic love ballad as Knightley first presents the song in a raw and soulful performance. The song appears again once Gretta wraps her album and Dave presents the song to her on his own recently completed studio album. Dave, now sporting a hilariously full beard that could house an army of bees, lets Gretta listen to an all-out bastardization of “Lost Stars” as the studios embellish it with poppy beats and rhythms. There isn’t any soul to it, and the juxtaposition of the former lovers’ growth as artists shows the integrity of Gretta’s path as an independent recorder. Dave pleads for Gretta to hear a live performance of “Lost Stars,” though, and the final number of Begin Again is a beautifully cathartic power ballad that returns to the central question of whether a song can save a person’s life. Begin Again provides some beautiful closure as it ends with “Lost Stars” and ensures that audiences, like Gretta, leave the theatre in a state of bliss.
Rating: ★★★★ (out of ★★★★★)
Begin Again opens in Ottawa July 11 at The ByTowne.