Starring: Mark Ruffalo, Keira Knightley, Hailee Steinfeld, Adam Levine, James Corden, Catherine Keener, Mos Def, CeeLo Green
Rating: R, for profanity
Irish filmmaker John Carney delivers another captivating ode to singers and songs
By Derrick Bang
Enterprise film critic
It’s a bit rough around the edges at first, the approach uncertain, the artist perhaps nervous and worried about looking foolish.
A needless concern.
I could be discussing the first song we see performed by Greta (Keira Knightley), reluctantly and a bit shyly, in front of an indifferent bar crowd. But I’m actually talking about this film itself: Perhaps writer/director John Carney is that clever, to have mirrored Greta’s stumbling debut before the public eye, with our reaction to the manner in which her story unfolds.
Because, in both cases, the talent involved can’t help but win us over.
“Begin Again” is the newest offering from the Irish filmmaker who charmed us so thoroughly with the saga of a Dublin busker in 2006’s “Once,” a film cherished just as much for its music — and that marvelous, Academy Award-winning song, “Falling Slowly” — as for the gently romantic manner in which its story unfolded.
Carney’s new film once again revolves around music, but the setting and tone are both different and somewhat grittier. This narrative has a villain, but it’s an entity rather than an individual: the music industry, depicted as the instrument by which pure expression is quashed, either benignly or overtly. Remaining true to one’s dreams, passions and (reasonable) expectations is the ideal here: a goal too easily corrupted, as we shall see, by outside forces conscious only of the bottom line.
Those who adore New York for its cornucopia of emotions and experiences will delight in Carney’s rapturous depiction: a Big Apple we’ve not seen idolized so passionately since Woody Allen’s “Manhattan,” back in 1979. This is a New York of joyous romance, much like the Paris of Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s “Amélie”: the city as we imagine it, based on cinematic valentines like this one.
The story opens in the aforementioned East Village bar, as the unwilling Greta is dragged to the stage for one song: a brief musical interlude noticed by nobody except Dan (Mark Ruffalo), whose presence — in that bar, at that moment — is explained during the first of Carney’s clever flashbacks. Dan, once a lauded record label exec, has fallen on hard times prompted by a crisis in his personal life; the result is growing friction with his longtime partner, Saul (Mos Def), which climaxes in yet another humiliation.
Dan also drinks too much, and has been doing so for too long. But his radar remains unimpaired: He’s drawn, moth to flame, by this hesitant performance by a British singer/songwriter who’d rather be anywhere else.
At which point, we learn what brought this shy woman to this stage, at this moment. The clock rolls back further, to when a deliriously happy Greta arrives in New York with boyfriend Dave (Adam Levine, of Maroon 5), who has just been “discovered” by a major music label. The perks are intoxicating, the environment irresistible. Dave … succumbs. Greta gets left behind: a devastating blow, because she’s not merely his longtime lover, but also his artistic muse. She wrote, or co-wrote, the songs that have made him famous.
How ironic, then, that this unrehearsed bar performance is to be her swan song, before hopping a plane and returning to London the very next day.
Dan won’t have it. Despite being drunk, disheveled and distractingly giddy, he retains his power of persuasion, his ability to seduce by speaking the language of artistic poetry. Despite her obvious doubts — this guy a music exec, seriously? — Greta cannot ignore him. So she buys into the dream.
It’s an odd dream: a plan to impress his partner by producing a truly unusual demo disc. Assembling a combo of talented supporting musicians willing to forgo immediate financial compensation for the sheer joy of being involved in something exciting, Dan orchestrates a series of guerrilla recording sessions throughout the city: open air, ambient sounds and all.
By this point, we’re enthralled. We buy into Carney’s deliciously romantic concept, and as much as we’re already smiling, our appreciation broadens as the first song is laid down with unexpected backing from some street children. Honestly, could anything be more enchanting?
As he did in “Once,” Carney finds ingenious ways to integrate songs into this narrative. The on-street, single-song concerts are an easy touch; by far the cleverest is the kiss-off song Greta performs, into a cell phone, to the long-absent Dave. That latter moment is breathtaking, particularly as Greta chokes during the final verse, modifying her lyrics somewhat unexpectedly … but extremely satisfyingly.
Knightley is divine in this role: as captivating a New York City gamine as we’ve seen since Audrey Hepburn trolled for “dates” in 1961’s “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.” Knightley’s wide smile is both unusual and irresistible: an animated display of teeth that is uniquely her own, and utterly adorable. She’s also persuasive as a songwriter turned reluctant performer, mostly as a means to protect her craft, her vision, her sense of her material.
The songs themselves are catchy and joyous: can’t-miss ballads and modern torch tunes (mostly) by Carney and Gregg Alexander, the latter from the band New Radicals. One tune, “Coming Up Roses,” comes from Carney’s “Once” star, Glen Hansard. This soundtrack is destined to fly off the shelves, as was the case with the album for “Once.”
Ruffalo probably should take care, lest he be typecast as the scruffy lost soul he plays here to such perfection. But it’s hard to fault the casting choice when Ruffalo fits Dan’s shoes so precisely, managing to remain somewhat appealing even during his worst moments. It’s the twinkle in his eye, and the passion that erupts every time Dan discusses music. No surprise, then, that Greta succumbs to Dan’s vision; heck, I’d follow him anywhere.
Hailee Steinfeld has a strong supporting role as Violet, Dan’s estranged and now quite rebellious teenage daughter, on the fast track to nothing good. Steinfeld, such a strong presence in 2010’s remake of “True Grit,” is equally persuasive here: the sullen teen furious with a father who ignores her too much, and yet just as desperate for his love and attention (we see the crushed disappointment in her eyes).
Levine is spot-on as the shallow, dirt-bag Dave: so easily swayed into betraying everything and everybody. Rob Morrow is memorably horrific in a fleeting cameo as an insincere label exec, and CeeLo Green is marvelous as Troublegum, a rap star who owes his career and lavish lifestyle to Dan, and knows how to repay his friends (and boy, wouldn’t you love to have one of him by your side!).
The strong performances notwithstanding, you’re most likely to remember enchanting montage moments, such as when Dan and Greta boldly share their playlists with each other, walking the New York streets while buddy-listening via two sets of headphones (cue classics such as Frank Sinatra’s “Luck, Be a Lady,” Stevie Wonder’s “For Once in My Life” and Dooley Wilson’s “As Time Goes By”).
Sweet as that is, I was most taken by the early scene that illustrates Dan’s vision for what Greta’s simple guitar solo, on that first song we hear, could turn into: The stage’s unused instruments begin to accompany her, in his mind’s eye, and we witness the result … as perfect a means of visualizing the creative spark as I’ve ever seen.
“Begin Again” likely will be a tough sell, during this summer season of frivolous popcorn fluff. It may not survive long in theaters. But any necessary effort will be rewarded by what you’ll discover is, to employ the old-fashioned term, an irresistibly memorable night at the movies.
— Read more of Derrick Bang’s film criticism at http://derrickbang.blogspot.com. Comment on this review at www.davisenterprise.com.