Sometime past the halfway point of Begin Again, ex-record executive and occasional drunk Dan (Mark Ruffalo) tells his new discovery, the British singer-songwriter Gretta (Keira Knightley), something that could very well be the driving force behind director John Carney’s aesthetic. “Music turns everyday banalities into these transcendent pearls of wisdom.” In both this new film and his highly regarded 2006 movie, Once, Carney, a musician himself, leans so heavy on music for narrative, song lyrics mark moments of transformation in his characters’ lives that transcend exposition.
With Once, Carney brought together a self-conscious yet sincere Irish guitarist (Glen Hansard) and an animated yet awkward Czech pianist (Markéta Irglová). Though they get to know each other in conversation, they actually seem to fall in love through song. The film collected one of the better-earned Oscars for original song in many years because the ballad “Falling Slowly” was, unlike most original song nominees, so much more than accompaniment to an end credits sequence or a musical interlude in the film’s action. It resonated through the film on a narrative level while transcending the traditional narrative of a film. Carney granted the songs in Once, which were written by the movie’s leads, space to move the narrative by allowing them to unfold from the musicians for long sequences, like the equivalent of musical numbers. Once stands as one of the most subtle musicals of the post-musical era.
Eight years later, Carney returns with a film built on a similar formula, this time in New York City and presenting two different stories of love, one of loss and another of redemption, which unfold against a slight critique of the music business. It’s not Once, which was set in Dublin and focused solely on the couple, but it still has elements that will charm many fans of Carney’s previous film. Despite a polish far removed from the low-budget intimacy of Once, at its core, Begin Again maintains the essential formula that made the former film beguiling. Many of the film’s turning points happen via song lyrics. Upon first-listen, Gretta’s music gives Dan renewed hope for his role in the music industry. Gretta also learns of the infidelity of her boyfriend and songwriting partner Dave (Adam Levine) a few seconds into hearing a new song he has just recorded.
As much as the film is about this young creative couple in turmoil, Begin Again spends equal time following Dan, a divorcé who has lost faith in contemporary music (an early scene of him talking back to demo CDs and throwing them out his car window is hilarious in its take-down of pop music tropes). More emotionally crippling, however, is how little faith he has in becoming the father his teenage daughter Violet (Hailee Steinfeld) needs. The gap between his ex-wife Miriam (Catherine Keener) has entered a place of ambivalent malaise, as the parents have resigned themselves to making a go of a sense of family for the sake of Violet, even though the father moved out of the house long ago. Gretta becomes less a love interest for Dan than a comrade in disheartened arms. She also has her own sense of cynicism about the world of music, as she has no interest in sharing her autobiographical songs outside of her former collaboration with Dave, who seems on his merry way to pop stardom without her. However, Dan and Gretta share a similar passion for music that will prove hard to keep them from working together.
It’s an easy relationship to buy, as within the film’s first few minutes, both the director’s and actors’ affection for these characters shines through, making the movie an easy film to ride along with and fall for, scene after scene. At the start of Begin Again, the morose, freshly-heartbroken Gretta hesitantly takes the stage at an open-mic night at the coaxing of a less shameful musician friend Steve (James Corden who frequently lightens the film’s mood as perky comic relief). She sings a song that not so subtly alludes to suicide by subway while most the bar’s patrons talk over it. Dan, however, seems captivated, and when the song, entitled “A Step You Can’t Take Back,” arrives at its quiet end, he’s the only one applauding. Just why is revealed in drawn-out flashback sequences, as we learn of both Gretta and Dan’s personal baggage leading up to their meeting in separate sequences. Though these Groundhog Day-like narrative turns might sound gimmicky, it works to keep the film’s sprightly pace and speaks to how important experiences are to the enchantments of a song that comes along at the right time. Though the song is a dreary affair, Dan is ripe to receive it after a rough day where he forgets Violet’s age, gets beat up in front of her for running out on a bar tab and is fired from his record label by his former business partner Saul (a slick and elegant Mos Def). By the time he arrives at the open-mic performance, Dan is primed to get lost in Gretta’s downer of a ditty. Despite the fact that she is only up there lightly strumming an acoustic guitar, he can hear and— in what may be too precious a fantastical representation— actually see an invisible arrangement, as instruments start playing themselves behind her spare picking and silky voice. Dan eventually convinces her to make a record with him, outdoors with the ambient din of New York City as just another element of her songs. Several songs unfold over the course of the film that show Gretta growing as a confident bachelorette while finding her voice. Meanwhile, Dan regains his personal confidence in both the industry and as a father and provider.
If there’s one thing lacking in Begin Again it lies in the strength of the songs, this time written by pop music songwriter Gregg Alexander, former frontman of the New Radicals and writer of hits for the likes of musicians from Santana to Boyzone. Outside of the film’s narrative context, Alexander’s songs come across as a tad saccharine and lyrically heavy-handed. That they work within the film, however, stands as testament to Carney’s filmmaking talent. There’s heart and humor between the film’s two leads, and the dialogue never feels forced. That their relationship never becomes romantic reveals a strength of their devotion to their music project, and the importance of their own private pasts, once again consistent to the dimension of the presence of baggage and experience that informs the music.
Though Carney is working with recognizable actors and high-profile musicians (including a scene-stealing CeeLo Green) celebrity never overshadows the film’s essential allure. Levine’s character never has to do much to be the unlikable louse who breaks his partner’s heart. After their breakup, he grows facial hair, from awkward mustache to full-on bushy beard. As he grows both more obnoxious and distant, the facial hair becomes a grander barrier. Knightley, who also does her own singing, infuses Gretta with a natural, fragile charisma that never betrays the character’s strength as a confident musician.
The director juggles the characters well for the duration of the film, and the complexity of multiple storylines merging never throws the drama off balance. As befitting the abstraction of music as narrative element, Carney prefers working in montage to move the film’s action along. There must be about 10 montage sequences in the entire movie. Even without musical accompaniment, the film’s editing features cuts pregnant with action left off-screen but still resonant in the characters’ growth and behavior, as if every second of character development matters, even the moments off-screen. As in Once, Carney employs handheld camera that never feels jarring. It brings an earthy quality to the film that brings the audience closer to the characters. In the end, it’s all about intimacy and nothing captures it better than shared musical experiences, even if the songs can sometimes sound silly.
Begin Again runs 104 minutes and is rated R (for swearing). It opened in South Florida on Wednesday, July 2, at the following theaters:
For screening information in other cities, visit the following link. The Weinstein Company invited me to a preview screening last week for the purpose of this review.