Writer-director John Carney struck gold several years ago with Once, a small Irish movie that scored a major victory for Best Original Song at the Oscars. Granted, that's perhaps the least film-centric trophy given at the Academy Awards, since many of the nominees are written and performed well after production wraps, but anyone who's heard "Falling Slowly" can attest to the song's impact in Once.
Flush with that success, Carney (and songwriters Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová) gave the greenlight to the Tony-winning Once musical. Then Carney churned out a couple movies you've never heard of. So how does he recapture the flame? By making another musical love story.
Begin Again is a larger production than Once, has bigger stars, and features largely worse music. It also has the glisten of professional filmmaking, a trait Once did not embody, making that film an even more lovable outsider by comparison. There are still some wonderful moments in Begin Again, and some nice discoveries, but it's very hard not to place it side-by-side with Carney's other film.
Greta (Keira Knightley) performs at an open mic night in New York and turns Dan's world on its head. Some of that could be the vats of booze he's consumed, but Dan (Mark Ruffalo) hears something unique in her sound, something the world needs to hear, as well. He should know; Dan started an indie record label in the 1990s and became one of the most celebrated producers of his generation. But things change, times change, and years of abuse take their toll.
His idea for Greta's music is unique: Dan will record live performances on the streets of New York, a love song to the city and a perfect backdrop for her organic, acoustic-based songs. Each of these scenes is a true highlight, especially an evening rooftop recording featuring Dan's daughter (Hailee Steinfeld) on lead guitar.
There are romantic subplots at play, but aren't there always? The only reason Greta is in New York to begin with is because she tagged along with her boyfriend (Adam Levine) when he was signed to a major label. En route to becoming an Adam Levine-sized star, he dumps her. Dan is on the outs with his wife (Catherine Keener). And, naturally, there's some chemistry between the young performer and the seasoned industry vet. Begin Again handles the last two particularly well, but the rock star boyfriend angle is dry and unsteady.
This just in, by the way: Keira Knightley sings all her own songs. She pretends to play guitar (it appears that she was shown two chords in preparation for the film), but that really is her singing. Knightley has a high-pitched, fragile voice. It's good, it fits the music, but she probably doesn't have a second career in the works. On the flip side, Adam Levine is pretty good in his limited time on screen. Of course, who wouldn't relish playing a self-centered douche that broke Keira Knightley's heart?
Ruffalo, as he usually does, provides Begin Again with a solid foundation. This is about both Greta's story and Dan's, and without the other, neither character arc would go anywhere. He can't truly "begin again" without her and vice versa. But it feels like there's more for Dan to lose and gain through his actions and more internal movement for him along the way.
This is a very nice movie. It's got some solid performances and some OK songs. But it never feels as though any of it is in doubt. Obviously, Greta's music is going to get noticed or Dan's an idiot. Obviously, Dan's downward spiral can't perpetuate in such an affirming story. So, your level of investment may vary. But it's a fine respite from what surrounds it in the megaplexes this summer.