John Carney’s follow up to his surprise hit romantic folk musical Once gives us generally more of the same bonding through music on a bigger budget; it’s in New York with famous actors now. But Begin Again (formerly called the rather unsubtle Can a Song Save Your Life?) has enough charm of its own to not just be Once again (…sorry).
The first half of Begin Again plays around with the narrative in an effective style, opening with the moment its central characters lay eyes on each other, then individually flashing back to how they came to be there. It begins as Gretta (Kiera Knightley) is reluctantly urged to perform one of her self-composed acoustic songs at an open mike night by her friend (James Corden) and is seen by Dan (Mark Ruffalo) in the audience.
The flashbacks then reveal that both are in rather unhappy situations; Dan is a record executive with financial problems, who’s just been fired from the label he founded, and Gretta’s just ended her long-term relationship with her boyfriend and songwriting partner after he cheated on her.
Carney’s opted for casting an established actress rather than a singer in Gretta’s role (which requires numerous singing scenes), and thankfully Kiera Knightley appears to possess a perfectly competent if unremarkable voice that suits the folksy-indie tunes she performs. Knightley’s an actress I’m rarely impressed by but she does one of her best acting jobs here too, (thankfully playing an English girl using her natural accent). The intentionally unenthusiastic first rendition of her song doesn’t sound like much at the start, but is rendered quite wonderfully second time around as we see it from a drunk Ruffalo’s perspective. As he sees potential in the song, all the unmanned instruments on stage begin playing along in accompaniment, utilising charmingly basic special effects to really allow us to hear what he hears.
Carney’s gone the other way when casting Gretta’s boyfriend however, and it hasn’t turned out well. Maroon 5 frontman Adam Levine plays Dave, who’s supposed to be a new up-and-coming rock star on the rise. Levine’s bland acting certainly doesn’t suggest he should consider a career switch and his presence brings baggage with it that hurts the film. I suppose it helps that he’s playing a selfish douchebag but his music is supposed to sound fresh and exciting to the teens that recognise him in the street but whenever we hear a song it just sounds exactly like Maroon 5, (and if you’re anything like me, that’s not a good thing) who’ve been around for well over a decade now. The film would have been much better off casting someone who wasn’t a well-known pop star.
On Ruffalo’s side he has an estranged ex-wife (an underused Catherine Keener) and daughter (Hailee Steinfeld, essentially reprising her stroppy daughter role from 3 Days to Kill, though slightly less grating this time) he wishes to reconnect with.
The big idea behind Begin Again is that after being rejected by Dan’s former label partner (Mos Def, who appears to have pitched his character as ‘permanently bored’), he and Gretta decide to recruit some musicians and just record the album themselves outside on the streets of New York, incorporating the sounds of the city. I don’t know if anyone’s actually done this before but it hardly sounds original or inspiring. However when they get around to performing, the film just wins you over with its joyous message about the happiness making music together can bring. The songs are all decent, and Carney even gets a good amount of humour from the recording scenes too.
The other really positive aspect to Begin Again is that as Dan and Gretta convincingly connect through their music, (I suppose that this could be considered a sort of negative spoiler?) the film refreshingly doesn’t try and add in a romantic element setting them up as another older man-younger woman couple. Their friendship builds to what should be a wonderful scene of music sharing that the film unfortunately scuppers by choosing overplayed classics to accompany them (including ‘As Time Goes By’).
There are a few other little niggles that got to me; for instance how exactly is (a surprisingly un-irritating) James Corden able to live in New York as a busker? Is he there illegally? But Begin Again, in addition to its expected themes of how music can connect people, has a nice pro-artist, anti-record label message to it too. Overall, it easily boasts enough charm that Carney will likely have another crown-pleaser on his hands.