Written and directed by John Carney, Begin Again is simply a joy to watch. At times this tale of the mismatched pair of a record label exec (Mark Ruffalo) whose life is swirling around the drain and a young singer-songwriter (Keira Knightley) dealing with crushing rejection of her now-successful longtime writing partner and boyfriend (Adam Levine) comes dangerously close to being too cute for its own good. Thankfully Carney’s choice to ground the film in serious issues such as heartbreak, betrayal, estranged families, and politics of the music business balances the film’s hopeful tone and message to prevent the movie from ever becoming too cliche or sappy.
While Ruffalo provides both angst and humor, Knightley is the soul of the film. Having only seen her sing in short segments of The Edge of Love (a movie worth seeing more for her performance more than anything else), I was thrilled to find a her lilting voice the perfect match for the indie songwriter thousands of miles from home dealing the emotional yo-yo of immediate heartbreak and at the same time a once-in-a-lifetime record offer.
Very similar to the relationship of Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson in Lost in Translation, Greta (Knightley) and Dan (Ruffalo) stumble upon each other at just the right time to create a loving, but not necessarily sexual, relationship that will strengthen them both in the short and long term. Set against New York City (a character unto itself which is woven into the film as several of Greta’s songs are performed and recorded around the city), the film begins with their chance encounter at an open mic night while offering flashbacks to the chain of events leading each to that time and place.
The film fills out its amazing supporting cast with Hailee Steinfeld and Catherine Keener as Dan’s estranged teenage daughter and wife, Mos Def as Dan’s more practical business partner looking for more commercial successes, and James Corden and Greta’s only friend from home who also helps offer some refuge during the fallout of her relationship. Knightley and Ruffalo carry the film, but each of the supporting roles, along with Levine as Greta’s now mega-star ex-boyfriend, are carefully woven into the story that isn’t afraid to get messy when highlighting real-life struggles.
Originally titled Can a Song Save Your Life?, Carney’s film offers an optimistic yes to that question as Greta’s song gives hope to a man in desperate need of some. We see pieces of Greta’s initial performance multiple times over the course of the film. Once from her perspective (focusing on the ambient noise of the club and disinterest of the club) and once from Dan’s perspective who views and hears the song not only for what it is but what it can become with the right back-up musicians and producer behind it. Greta’s song saves Dan but his belief in her song and insistence on producing her album offers her a much-needed lifeline as well.
Despite centering on characters whose main relationships are all broken in one way or another, Begin Again never bogs down or looses sight of the hopeful nature of Carney’s script. The result is an immensely enjoyable film filled with terrific performances and a amazing soundtrack. As he did with Once, Carney uses music as a prism to explore relationships, growth through pain, and the joy that can be found if the right song finds you at just the right moment.