Like a great song, Begin Again is all about the build-up.
It’s a long road of meh, though, until the electrifying, invigorating, chill-inducing third act, which almost makes up for a choppy beginning and sometimes dull middle bit. Keira Knightley stars as Greta, a Londoner in New York with her beau, next-big-thing-in-music Dave Kohl (a surprising Adam Levine). She writes songs with him, sometimes for him, and they’re madly in love until she hears one of his new tunes and deduces that it’s about another woman. Disgruntled, she sings about loneliness at a dingy club later that night, where Dan (Mark Ruffalo, phenomenal as usual), drunk as a skunk, imagines Greta being backed by a pianist, violinist, cellist and drummer. It’s magic, he thinks and hopes.
Director John Carney is no stranger to movies about musicians, having helmed the Oscar-winning Once, like Begin Again only in that it features a male and female lead making music together. Begin Again, with its bigger budget and New York setting, is much glossier, its songs much more poppy and radio-ready. I preferred the songs in Begin Again, so much so that I was missing the music when the film veered into its sometimes trite dialogue. (Conversely, I thought Once was beautifully filmed, and felt authentic because it was authentic and shot for peanuts) When Dan suggests Greta work on her stage presence and let him put her in some better outfits, she naively retorts: “Music is for the ears, not the eyes … People want authenticity.” He asks: Do you have a Facebook page? MySpace? Come on. Some of the film felt like it was written by a dinosaur pretending to know what young folk think of the music industry. (Carney wrote the film’s screenplay. In another scene, Dan’s 14-year-old daughter Violet (Hailee Steinfeld) says her outfit is sexy because she got it from American Apparel.) “Maybe the kids are right. Maybe music should be free,” Dan says at a meeting at the record label he helped found. There, his partner’s million-dollar idea to saving the industry is having musicians record commentaries on albums.
Without any money to record Greta’s demo, she and Dan decide they’ll record her album outside. New York is gorgeous: alleys, parks, rooftops, subway stations. But all we hear in Begin Again is the versions of the songs you can buy on iTunes, never the gritty, street versions with ambient sounds Dan repeatedly says are so amazing. The movie and the way the music is presented are almost too polished. Maroon 5 frontman Adam Levine steals the show with the film’s closing number, “Lost Stars,” a song Greta wrote for his Dave earlier in their relationship. He records it for his new album; it’s a huge hit, and audiences eat it up when he performs it live. But when Greta hears it, she’s almost ill: You’re lost to the production, she tells him. Evidently, his multi-instrument arena version isn’t quite what she had in mind for her acoustic ballad. His final performance gave me chills, and “Lost Stars” is the standout track (and probable future Oscar nominee) in a film full of good and sometimes great songs.
Begin Again premièred at TIFF in 2013, when it was still called Can A Song Save Your Life (yeesh). It’s great to see Knightley handle herself with so much ease in a non-period piece. This lighter stuff looks as good on her as those elaborate costumes and hairdos do. It’s also great to see Steinfeld in any role – she may as well have been MIA since her breakout work in the Coens’ 2010 film True Grit, having appeared in a handful of duds like 3 Days to Kill, a Romeo & Juliet remake and Ender’s Game. Begin Again also stars indie queen Catherine Keener, James Corden, and Levine’s former The Voice co-star CeeLo Green.
I’m not sure how much more other than the title was changed since TIFF, but the biggest problem I had with Begin Again was its tonal inconsistency. It felt like too many people may have had a say in what kind of movie Begin Again would be. Carney no doubt wanted a Once-like film; in seconds, Begin Again could go from the cutesiness of a romcom like Music & Lyrics to the melancholy of Inside Llewyn Davis. The characters have been through some rough stuff, no doubt, but you feel no one wanted the movie to be too much of a downer. Heck, just check out the trailer: It’s cut to make it look like a laugh-a-minute romp. The film also isn’t quite sure where it stands vis-à-vis celebrating the music industry and admonishing it. Begin Again is in the precarious situation of being a commercial film that preaches against commercialism and favours “authenticity,” but ends up falling short of authentic itself.
Begin Again opens in Montreal Friday, July 11.
★★½ (out of ★★★★)