Click on the poster for the original trailer.
"I'm a producer because I don't play bass, baby!"
Dan (Mark Ruffalo)
Kindred Spirits in Time Square.
Back in 2007, during the 80th Annual Academy Awards at the Kodak Theater in Hollywood, John Travolta read out the nominees for Best Original Song. When the envelope was opened and the winner announced, the biggest cheer filled the theater and around the viewing audiences. "Falling Slowly"
from the micro-budget Irish film Once
had beaten 3 nominations for a Disney film to the prize (usually a shoe-in for the Song gong) and there was an incredible reaction when songwriters/stars Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová (even more touching when host Jon Stewart invited Irglová back on stage to complete her acceptance speech after the orchestra interrupted her
was a cinematic dream come true - a film shot for less that $150,000 with many non-actors and skeleton crew making it all the way to the most prestigious awards ceremony in the world AND coming away with one of them! So how does writer-director John Carney follow that success story? After the relative disappearance of his follow-up feature, Zonad
, Carney has chosen to make another music film that sits in the same world as Once
, but this time with a bigger budget and access to A-list stars and musicians. And while the film ultimately pales in comparison to Carney's breakthrough effort, Begin Again
is still a bright and refreshing alternative to the summer's CGI-packed action-fests.
Making sweet music together...
In a half-empty Greenwich Village bar after a day to forget, washed-up A&R man Dan (Mark Ruffalo) catches an impromptu open-mic performance from Gretta (Keita Knightley). Recently single and on the verge of flying back to London, Gretta's song is lost on almost everyone in the bar. But Dan, through his whiskey-blurred haze, is captivated by the meaning and spirit that he finds lacking in the CDs his company has been sending him. So he approaches Gretta with a proposal of recording an album with her. And with no money to hire out a studio they will record in the great outdoors, using the side-streets, the subways and the sunlit rooftops of New York to provide their backing track.
Carney's concept is a cute one and he handles the storyline well, rarely allowing it to seep into overt saccharine and the story plays out in a gentle bonhomie that is all the more rare in film these days. Carney's use of natural light and handheld camerawork adds a distinct air of authenticity that worked so well in his previous film, and it works just as well here (it is a style of film making that I hope to use myself in my current project
). In fact, it could be fair to criticize Carney for playing it a little too close to Once
at times. This is most evident when the film deals with the potential love story between the leads. In Begin Again
, Dan has an estranged wife (Catherine Keener) and daughter (Hailee Steinfeld, cornering the market in the "Daughter with Absent Father" category after Three Days To Kill
), Gretta has a successful ex-boyfriend (Maroon 5's Adam Levine). In Once
, Glen Hansard's Guy had an ex-girlfriend in London while Markéta Irglová's Girl had a husband back in the Czech Republic. The main difference is that in Once
Carney set the love story at the heart of the film - here the possible love affair is more on the sidelines. This does leave us suspecting that it was more an afterthought than an integral part of the story. Not that this matters too much, as Ruffalo and Knightley have enough genuine chemistry to make the possible flickers in the heart believable to the audience.
It is in the strength of its ensemble where Begin Again truly stands out. Ruffalo plays the scruffy leading man better than anyone in Hollywood right now and Knightley is both vulnerable and charming as the jilted singer-songwriter. Yet the biggest surprise is with the music stars that step up to the acting plate. While Yasiin Bay/Mos Def (as Dan's former business partner) is no stranger to the big screen, who knew that Adam Levine had such natural acting ability? Levine exudes a nice balance of self-serving arrogance and genuine love for Gretta as his rock star cannot accept how he has sold out for success. And CeeLo Green steals every scene he's in with an hilarious cameo as Dan's hip-hop star act Troublegum. Elsewhere, special mention should also go to James Corden as Gretta's fellow Brit busking on the streets of Manhattan who reigns in his usual knack for shouting to provide a warm support role for Gretta when Levine un-ceremoniously dumps her.
If there are weaknesses, they lie in the film's structure (an over-reliance on flashback that could have been fixed creatively in the edit suite) and, it is sad to say, the music. Now don't misinterpret this - the songs themselves are superb (the songs include input from Carney himself as well as former Frames bandmate Hansard). And Knightley should be commended for bravely tackling them in her singing debut. It is a shame then that her voice is limited, both in range and in power. Her breathy tones are serviceable enough, but the emotional heft is lacking a little - especially when the raw intensity and feeling that Hansard & Irglová brought to Once still lingers in the memory. It is difficult to avoid the comparisons, and in that key area Begin Again does lose out by comparison... But only just.
Here is another uplifting film from John Carney - a comedy-musical-romance that continues where his breakthrough left off. Although not reaching the heights and emotional impact that his previous music fable attained, Begin Again is another joyful story of music's ability to bring disparate groups and broken families together. And in a summer crammed with big-budget studio pics, that is something to be treasured.