Starring: Mark Ruffalo, Keira Knightley, Hailee Steinfeld
Genre: Drama/ Musical
British songwriter Gretta (Knightly) lives a lonely life in New York after splitting with her singer boyfriend Dave (Adam Levine) who has just made it big in the industry. Her friend Steve (James Corden) persuades her to do an impromptu performance of one of her songs on stage at an open mike night. Her performance is witnessed by Dan (Ruffalo), a permanently drunk ex record producer with a troubled relationship with his estranged wife and daughter, who is at the bar by sheer chance. Dan sees a raw talent in Gretta and manages to persuade her to record an album with him, using the city as their studio.
Like most films that feature music, Begin Again features plenty of contrivances and clichés, despite the fact that the writer/ director of Once, John Carney purposely wrote the story before he, Gregg Alexander and Glen Hansard wrote the songs. Though the story is far stronger in its own right than most musical films, there is no getting away from the fact that both the narrative and characters in Begin Again are more than a little predictable, clichéd and contrived. There are also plenty of less than subtle swipes at the shallow and fickle nature of the music industry that will not surprise anyone and though their inclusion is a component of the overall narrative, they provide scenes that add up to nothing.
Despite all the clichés and contrivances, Carney’s film is written with enough authentic passion and integrity, as well as being very well acted, to still be a genuinely engaging and uplifting tribute to the universal power of music. The songs themselves are also very well written and do fit with the story very well.
At the centre, and vital in my view for Begin Again to work as well as it does are two excellent performances; Mark Ruffalo, always a very likeable screen presence, is excellent as Dan. His sheer charisma and natural, effortless charm light up every scene he is in and rise above the extremely clichéd back story of his character. The eccentric and slightly hyper language and mannerisms would be very easy to overplay and become irritating in the hands of a lesser actor, but Ruffalo is never anything less than charming and likeable, making it all seem effortless, and he even makes his character’s excessive use of the word ‘babe’ never sound patronising or insulting when he uses it in conversation with Knightley’s character.
Knightley herself is also excellent, though her character’s back story is not as interesting as Ruffalo’s, her raw and vulnerable performance makes her character more engaging than perhaps Carney’s script initially does. As the character that does a vast majority of the singing and in her first ever singing role, Knightley is also a very good singer. In his first acting role, Adam Levine essentially plays himself, and though it is exactly what the narrative requires, the story between his character and Knightley’s just is not that interesting, even if the developments in their relationship at the end of the film are quite satisfyingly (though seemingly shown at the expense of Dan’s arc). What is also satisfying is that Carney keeps Dan and Gretta’s relationship plutonic.
The rest of the cast fair well; with James Cordon (despite just playing himself as always) actually being likeable, while Hailee Steinfeld and Catherine Keener are excellent in their limited screen time, but are underused, especially Keener. The rough-around-the-edges dialogue feels semi-improvised by the cast, if it was I have no idea, but it certainly works and on the whole adds to the engagement of the film and its predominantly very likeable characters. The scenes of Dan, Gretta and their makeshift band recording songs in various New York locations are great to watch, and we the viewer do genuinely feel part of it.
Begin Again may have a particularly predictable and slightly contrived narrative with its fair share of clichéd characters, but Carney’s obvious genuine passion for the universal power of music proves that Begin Again is ultimately a film written with genuine heart for its subject matter, and it is a film that any lover of music will find an engaging and uplifting experience.
Though containing narrative contrivances and clichés in abundance, the superb performances, good songs and Carney’s obvious passion for music and what it can do for all people makes Begin Again a genuinely engaging and uplifting experience for all who appreciate the emotional and universal power of music.