Film Review – Begin Again
Earnest, sweet, endearing, laconic, engaging; these are all terms that come to mind when describing the delightful new musical Begin Again. A follow up by director John Carney to the astonishingly terrific Once, the new film works as a spiritual sequel. It doesn’t share any characters or songs, but it definitely lives in the same emotional world of the earlier film. This time around there are much more well known performers and a noticeably larger budget. But it still works in the intimate territory of longing, loving, and the low key music that can express it all.
First surprise, Keira Knightly can sing. She stars as a British transplant in New York who followed her successful singer boyfriend (Adam Levine) across the pond so he can record a new album with fancy pants American Producers. While he falls in love with the spotlight and neglects her, at the urging of an old friend (winningly played by James Corden who is soon to be featured in the upcoming Into The Woods adaptation), she performs one of her heartfelt songs at an open mike night. Serendipitously she is heard by a drunk, down on his luck Mark Ruffalo. He is on the tail end of what could conceivably be one of the worst days anyone could have and is going on the latest of what can be assumed of many binges. He is stopped in his tracks at hearing her song.
This is the moment when the film truly becomes magical. We see the simple song she is playing through his eyes. He’s filling in the potential accompianment of other instruments around her. In a whimsical style, the instruments play themselves and you see a song actually being born. So he is determined to make an album with her. Knightly’s character is skeptical of course. She is full of righteous integrity concerning true musicianship. But he insists that he can help her. And they hatch an organic idea to record all of her songs live in various outdoor spots throughout the city. The album is meant to be a love letter to New York itself.
The recording sessions take on a slight fairy tale quality. The images are definitely an idealized New York. A night time rooftop performance features the Empire State Building in the background. A song performed in an alley incorporates some random kids who are noisly playing nearby. Everything is fodder for their album.
Meanwhile, the Producer and the Singer are falling in love. Not with each other, though they do flirt. Music becomes their bond. As the title of the film suggests, the music is enabling them both to start over. A sweet sequence involves an all night sharing of earbuds while listening to Sinatra and Stevie Wonder on an iPod. He points out that music provides a soundtrack to ordinary life. It makes average, mundane events into these little pearls to be appreciated. He also points out that as he gets older, his string of pearls gets longer with more string than pearls. I really like that imagery.
The cast here is superb. Knightly is effortlessly sincere as the musician. She’s heartbroken at lost love. But she also admits to still loving her ex-boyfriend. Adam Levine is trading on his Maroon 5 image a bit here. While he is a bit of the pseudo-sincere cad that many might think he is from his own music career, he is also able to show that even a jerk has more than one dimension. Catherine Keener as Ruffalo’s estranged wife is terrific as always. With very few scenes she is convincing at having a long history with him. Mos Def is funny as Ruffalo’s former music partner. CeeLo Green makes a fun extended cameo as a big time successful rapper with nothing but support and love to offer. Hailee Steinfeld as Keener and Ruffalo’s teenage daughter is convincingly disaffected and yet still earnest.
However, as usual, Mark Ruffalo is truly the engine that makes the movie work here. He is a loveable loser. Drunk most of the time, you can feel the shell of his earlier successful music career haunting him as he tries to reclaim former glory. He often runs out on bar bills, he’s constantly bumming money off of people, at first blush he seems to be an absentee father, and he doesn’t have any of the resources left to support his family or friends. Yet you still love him. His passion for the music bubbles right off the screen. And the back story of his character is revealed slowly with mild surprises that keep the film from being obvious. In projects both big and small, this actor always proves to be the most watchable thing on screen.
Right now, this is the summer that’s giving us another installment of giant robots beating each other up, a giant lizard destroying half the world, and endless entries in tired franchises. Begin Again works as an antidote to all of that bombast. It’s quiet, sweet, and low key. While it might not prove to be the instant classic that Once became, it does have charms of it’s own. The structure is surprising where you see a few scenes from multiple angles. There is a flashback within a flashback. And there is sweet music throughout. This is the kind of movie that should be supported by your patronage. Go see it.