John Carney mines familiar territory in his latest feature, the comedy-drama Begin Again, starring Mark Ruffalo and Keira Knightley. The writer and director of Once (2006) traverses the pond to return to the music world, this time substituting Dublin for a romanticized version of New York City. It’s difficult not to compare Carney’s two films as they both revolve around struggling singer-songwriters; while there are numerous differences, there is one considerable distinction. The rawness, grit and energy of the city, music and the performances, which were organic to Once, are a little more forced in the latter film.
Ruffalo’s character, Dan, a washed-up record producer, starts off as a Llewyn Davis rehash. He’s a disheveled mess who’s separated from his wife (Catherine Keener) and emotionally estranged from his teenaged daughter (Hailee Steinfeld). His day gets a lot worse when he’s fired from his own record label by his partner, Saul (Yasiin Bey, formerly known as Mos Def), for not discovering any new talent in years.
In the midst of a bender, Dan stumbles into an East Village bar during an open mic night. Gretta (Knightley) has reluctantly been ushered onstage by her friend, Steve (James Corden), to perform one of her latest songs. No one’s really paying any attention, except Dan, who hears magic. Carney adds a bit of animation that’s a little corny and distracting in this scene: The instruments around Knightley come to life as Ruffalo’s fleshes the song out in his head with a full band. It’s an unnecessary trick because Ruffalo is such a good actor he doesn’t need the visual aids.
Still drunk, Dan introduces himself to Gretta as a record producer, and she’s smartly wary at first. She’s about to return to England anyway, leaving her broken heart behind. Gretta’s tale, told in flashback, is a familiar one: Her long-time boyfriend and songwriting partner Dave (Maroon 5’s Adam Levine) was offered a lucrative record deal in New York, and they were put up in luxury. Soon thereafter, however, he gives into the rock lifestyle and strays.
Gretta takes Dan up on his offer to produce her record so she can focus on something other than Dave. With the help of an old client, Troublegum (the always-entertaining Cee-lo Green), he assembles a motley band of musicians to record Gretta’s album—guerrilla style—on the streets of New York, from under bridges to alleys to high-rise rooftops. Dan and Gretta capture the soundtrack of the summer in New York while rebuilding their lives together through their music. The film picks up the energy in the street scenes, becoming a fun-loving homage to the city.
The performances in the film are first-rate, but many of the supporting characters border on one-dimensional. Bey is limited to his role as the “bad music exec,” and Keener doesn’t nearly have enough to do, relegated to the background. Levine’s visual transformation onscreen is fun to watch, from a small-town boy to a douchey hipster musician (complete with a ridiculous beard). He does a decent job in his debut role, but doesn’t have to stretch far to relate to pop star Dave.
Both Ruffalo and Knightley are perfect in their respective roles; in lesser hands, their characters could have become too predictable, too cliched. Even as a drunk ne’er-do-well, Ruffalo brings a relatable charm to Dan. (And we can totally empathize as he tosses CDs out of his car window with disdain after listening to the same-sounding pop-rock demos.)
Knightley is made as unglamourous and frumpy as possible, but it’s understandable why she’s appealing to the characters in the film, even bonding with Dan’s reticent daughter. (We wished Steinfeld and Knightley had more screentime together; their scenes were short, but touching.) Knightley’s eyes are so expressive that in a key scene in which she discovers Dave’s dalliance, Carney holds a close-up on her face as she listens to one of his new songs. The dialogue is minimal, but Knightley’s look is heart-breaking.
While much has been said of Knightley not being a trained singer or musician, it’s not a problem since she plays a shy songwriter anyway. (Her vocal and guitar performances are passable.) Our biggest bone of contention with Begin Again is the lack of memorable, moving music. We remembered the songs from Once long after the film ended. (Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová, stars of the film, won an Oscar for their song “Falling Slowly.”)
Gregg Alexander, former frontman of the New Radicals, served as the film composer, co-writing many of the tunes featured in the soundtrack with different writers. The pop tunes are ready for Top 40—even Gretta’s songs, which seems contrary to Dan’s approach to music—but all lack an emotional resonance.
There’s a sheen that permeates Begin Again, from the music to an idealized version of New York (no traffic, crowds) to the relationships between the characters. Thankfully, the “feel-good” film ends on a bittersweet note, adding realism to save Begin Again from becoming too much Once … Upon a Time. (Stick around for the credits, too, because Carney includes a major, but fun twist to Gretta’s record release.)
Christine N. Ziemba is a Los Angeles-based pop culture writer and regular contributor to Paste. You can follow her on Twitter.
Director: John Carney
Writer: John Carney
Starring: Keira Knightley, Mark Ruffalo, Hailee Steinfeld, Adam Levine, James Corden, Yasiin Bey (Mos Def), Cee Lo Green, Catherine Keener
Release Date: June 27, 2014 (limited)