BEGIN AGAIN (2014) Keira Knightley, Mark Ruffalo, Adam Levine, Catherine Keener, James Corden, Ceelo Greene, Hailee Steinfeld, Yasiin Bey, Aya Cash. Directed by John Carney
I've always been fond of films about musicians. It could be because in my youth I went to hundreds of concerts or maybe it's my twenty plus years in radio that has made me biased towards these types of movies. Music has always been a big part of my life.
In 2007, Irish writer-director John Carney released the charming film "Once" about a guy that performs as a street musician in Dublin who meets a Czech immigrant girl that sells flowers and plays guitar. The movie won an Oscar for Best Original Song (Falling Slowly), the soundtrack was nominated for a Grammy, and the indie film was turned into a Tony-award winning Broadway musical.
Seven years later, Carney attempts to recapture that magic with his new film "Begin Again." Working with a bigger budget and talent didn't cause the Irish director to lose sight of what made "Once" such a special film, but he did have a challenge by casting Keira Knightley in the lead role, a good actor but not a singer. Her performance in the film is wonderful and she sounds really good. So how did Carney accomplish this transformation? By hiring the same vocal coach that worked with Reese Witherspoon and Joaquin Phoenix in Walk The Line and Jeff Bridges in Crazy Heart, both Witherspoon and Bridges took home Oscars for their performances.
Keira Knightly plays Gretta, a British songwriter who comes to New York with her rising star boyfriend Dave Krohl (Adam Levine of Maroon 5) who just landed a recording contract after scoring a hit on a soundtrack. Even though the two write together the label is only interested in Dave and while he's recording his album Greta is left to basically run errands and pass out water bottles to everyone in the studio. When Dave cheats on Gretta she moves out of their luxury condo into a small cramped apartment with her friend Steve (James Corden), a street musician who has also come to America hoping to make it big. He convinces Gretta to accompany him to an open mic night at a bar and while performing he calls her out to come up and sing a song and she reluctantly agrees. Dan (Mark Ruffalo), a washed up record executive who has just had one of the worst days in his life, is in the bar and sees the star potential in Gretta after being floored by her song. He tells Gretta he wants to sign her and record an album, the only problem is that Dan just got fired by his partner ( Yasiin Bey formerly known as Mos Def) from the label he used to own and he's flat broke. Gretta is done and ready to go back to London anyway but Dan convinces her to stay after he comes up with the idea to record the album guerrilla style, outdoors and live at various landmarks in New York with the ambient noise of the city in the background. The cast is rounded out by the wonderful Catherine Keener who plays Miriam, Dan's ex, Ceelo Greene is funny as a popular hip hop star who was discovered by Dan back in the day, and Hailee Steinfeld plays Dan's estranged daughter Violet.
At one time this film was titled "Can A Song Save Your Life?", an awful title for such a good film, thank goodness that Carney changed it to "Begin Again" which not only sounds better but fits the movie's central theme.
It would have been fairly easy to slip up and make this a hackneyed and insipid piece of cinema but it succeeds on so many levels. The performances by Keira Knightly and Mark Ruffalo are authentic and the two balance each other nicely, and probably the biggest selling point of a film like this is the music. After viewing Carney's earlier film "Once" I couldn't stop singing the songs, they were so good, and now days after viewing "Begin Again" I have the soundtrack stuck in my head. Greg Alexander of New Radicals wrote most of the songs but Glen Hansard (from Once) and songwriter Rick Nowels, who's worked with Lana del Rey and Lykke Li. also contributed to the film.
I hate to use the cliché "the feel good movie of the summer" but I had a big smile on my face after watching the film and I enjoyed all the songs in the movie. I've seen a lot of good films so far this year and I have to say "Begin Again" is one of my favorites.
*Now playing at the River Oaks (Houston), Violet Crown Cinema, Alamo Drafthouse Slaughter Lane, Regal Arbor @ Great Hills, and AMC Barton Creek Square 14 (Austin).
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