Director/Writer John Carney is establishing a little nitch for himself in the film industry. A modern take on the backstage musical except now the stage is the studio and the music is far less grandiose. With Once, his academy award winning film, he nailed the sort of real world drama musical and he returns to that new genre again with Begin Again except this time he has big name stars and an American budget.
Carney is clearly a talented and emotional musician and returning to this form allows him to flex those muscles once again. Can he have the same impact as he did on his debut feature film or does upping the ante in almost every department mean a bit of soul is lost? In a film about finding the soul of art and yourself it’s a bit ironic what the answer to that question is.
Director: John Carney
Release Date: June 27, 2014
Begin Again is not a new tale unfortunately. In fact the plot initially turned me away from the film as it hints that the emotion, feeling and musical power of Once have been sacrificed here in order to tell a happy message. Dan (Mark Ruffalo) is an alcoholic music producer who has just been kicked out of the record label he founded. On a drunken bender he winds up in a bar where he sees Greta (Keira Knightly) perform and instantly realizes she could be a star. Greta has recently broken up with her boyfriend, Dave (Maroon 5’s Adam Levine), after traveling to America with him because he became a big musical star. The two connect as their lives fall apart and decide to put an album together themselves and do it by recording all over the streets of New York.
Sadly you can easily tell where the film is going from the start, though thankfully Dan and Greta never become romantically entwined. The characters development is as basic as you can get as they follow the exact lines two people meeting in a movie should. The problem is that this is the plot of a bad romantic comedy and lacks the depth of anything real. Things are just a bit too easy for everyone and where Once felt raw and truthful this feels idealistic and naive by comparison. Don’t be mistaken that a film must be sad to be truthful, but the lives of the New Yorkers presented in the movie is the idyllic down on your luck stuff that should be present in lesser films.
I say lesser films because Begin Again‘s music and actors pulls it out of the normal rote material that the plot is. Although never as good as Once‘s painfully heartbreaking “Falling Slowly” Carney shines again as a songwriter. His music strikes the chords that plot refuses to, hitting emotional beats that would be completely missing if it wasn’t there. Knightly delivers surprisingly strong vocals as the main singer and a scene in which her opening song is re-imagined by a drunk Mark Ruffalo is easily the high point of the film.
Ruffalo and Knightly are damn near too charming together, and one of the only parts of the film that rings a bit deeper is their tug of war between romance and friendship. That line plays out far better because the two layer their performances fantastically. Ruffalo’s drunken Dan is particularly enjoyable in the first half of the film and Knightly avoids her usual waifishness as she powers through some emotional songs. A lot will probably be said about Levine since he isn’t completely terrible, but the singer shows little promise as than a guy who can sing and won’t ruin your acting scenes. Anything more complimentary is far over estimating his role in the film.
Carney direction is the last piece of the puzzle that makes the film more than its characters and story make it be. That same raw style that was present in Once returns here, and while the idea of recording on the street is the most unoriginal original idea out there it offers Carney the chance to capture New York wonderfully as he films his actors basically rolling around singing. It elevates the already great music into enjoyable to watch music and turns some truly useless moments into at visually pleasing ones. The fact that the story is clearly influenced by his experiences after blowing up for Once doesn’t hurt things either.
With Begin Again Carney has lost the characters and narrative that made Once such a powerful and stirring movie. However, a fantastic cast, engaging direction and truly good music mean that the movie can elevate itself above its stale story and two-dimensional characters into something else that just can’t quite deliver what it really wants to. There’s plenty of good to watch here, but this time around Carney’s soul seems to be missing.