An old-fashioned movie musical disguised as a featherweight urban rom-com, John Carney's Begin Again is a movie you'll have to meet at least halfway. No, characters don't break into song on the streets of New York or tap-dance through the rain, but it's a movie that very much relies on its musical component to engage its audience. If you don't like the slight and sugary sounds that Keira Knightley -- as Greta, a songwriter who convincingly insists she isn't a real performer -- and company produce herein, you might as well stay home.
On the other hand, the film is sprinkled with lots of little grace notes, such as Mark Ruffalo gone full seedy as Dan, a once-hot record company exec who has hit a long dry spell. Dan, estranged from his rock journalist wife (Catherine Keener, who else) and teenage daughter (Hailee Steinfeld, still able to portray an awkward 14-year-old), is tossed out of the label he helped found by his partner Saul (the immaculate, ever impressive Mos Def) and hits bottom -- contemplating suicide in a subway station -- just before stumbling woozy into an open mic talent night where Greta is failing to make much of an impression on the audience.
But Dan hears things others don't, and he senses the potential in this skinny English girl (Knightley hasn't seemed this gawky or appealing since her star-making turn in Bend It Like Beckham), imagining how her skeletal tune might sound filled out by session pros. He wants to make her a star.
Greta doesn't really believe in pop stardom, however, especially not since her longtime boyfriend Dave (Adam Levine, sneaky good as a well-meaning but ultimately soulless pop manque) has just hit the medium time with his first album and dumped her, though apparently not all of her material. Still, she agrees to put off her flight back to England long enough to allow Dan to pitch her as a new artist to his old label.
When that doesn't go well, Dan hits on the charming (if wishful) strategy of recording a live album in public spaces around the city, using guerrilla tactics and pickup musicians. This album is the heart of the movie, and I imagine that quite a few people will find the recording sequences risible, but I happen to like them very much. They seem to catch the joy of the process, and while the end product isn't revelatory -- Knightley has an earnest, pleasant voice that might be Pro-Tooled into pop perfection if she ever wanted to go that route, but she's hardly a real singer -- it feels credible. These songs are good enough, the performances are good enough. Were they much better, we might grow suspicious.
"Music turns everyday banalities into these transcendent pearls of wisdom," Dan tells Greta at one point while they're wandering around the city sharing her iPhone's music via a splitter and headphones. And if that's a banal thing to say, it's at least half true -- for music is a language beyond words, where lyrics are often nothing more than packages to contain emotive content. You pick at the loose threads of any pop song and it's likely to come unraveled. So it is with this film.
As he did with his 2006 surprise hit Once, writer-director Carney delicately navigates the spaces between desperation and redemption, never quite allowing the film to resolve to easy beats and expectations. At least some of this film is about alcoholism and the way it imposes on creativity, but there are no long speeches, and when Dan finally picks up a soft drink he grimaces and wonders how people can drink the stuff. (We may assume it wasn't a product placement.)
I have a sense this movie will fare better with audiences than with critics, though I'm not sure why, other than it does at times feel a little like Once remade in New York. I like most of it, from Greta's authentically English teeth to Dan's impossibly beautiful wreck of an old Jaguar. It's a movie that is painfully sincere and free of guile, with as close to a happy ending as these characters could ever get. If you like musicals, well, here's a good one.
MovieStyle on 07/11/2014
Print Headline: Begin Again