The new film from Irish director John Carney, writer and director of the indie hit Once, is another movie about music — listening to it, making it, pouring your heart and soul into it. It’s about how a shared love of creating or even just listening to a song can bring people together in a meaningful way.
Part fairy tale, part character study, Begin Again stars Keira Knightley as Gretta, a songwriter dumped by her callous pop star boyfriend (Adam Levine) after he has hit the big time and cheated on her. Shattered, Gretta is poised to head home to England but instead is dragged out to open mic night, where a cheery busker friend cajoles her onto the stage. Her voice is soft, husky, unaccustomed to performing. The chatter in the bar rises. She finishes the song gamely, sure nobody’s really paying attention.
But someone is paying attention: flailing music industry executive Dan (Mark Ruffalo at his rumpled, dissolute best), who just got kicked out of his own company. He’s slumped at the bar but galvanized by the opening notes of Gretta’s song (Carney dramatizes how Dan can immediately understand how the music should be arranged in a sweetly dazzling way). Dan formed his own indie music label back in the day, but in the wake of personal disaster he has abandoned his first passion for the swampy embrace of booze, to the consternation of his partner (Mos Def) and his estranged wife (Catherine Keener). Hell, Dan doesn’t even know the age of his teenage daughter (Hailee Steinfeld, True Grit). But he does know a good song when he hears it.
To an extent, Begin Again embraces a magical let’s-put-on-a-show vibe as Dan, rebuffed by his partner after requesting help making a demo, decides that Gretta should simply record songs all over New York: atop buildings; in alleyways; in the subway (until the cops show up). Technology has evolved enough to allow just about anyone to record an album, and with Dan’s expertise and connections, they gather the requisite musicians and set out to create something wonderful — and to heal themselves in the process.
Begin Again manages to be romantic and cynical about the music industry, which Carney touches on but never allows to take center stage, keeping it as the backdrop against which more-emotional developments can play out. Dan and Gretta, who seem to be teetering on the brink of falling in love, aimlessly wander the city at night sharing their playlists, to demonstrate that this is a movie about how music can form powerful bonds. Sharing the most embarrassing songs on your iPod is a truly 21st century display of trust. Though Carney apparently has pretty good taste in music: Neither Frank Sinatra nor Stevie Wonder would qualify as the most embarrassing artist on any playlist I’ve ever heard.
Though the success of Once has allowed Carney a bigger budget to work with, Begin Again retains the feel of an indie movie in keeping with its grassroots story. Carney understands this kamikaze way of creating: It’s how he made Once. Begin Again doesn’t quite pack the bittersweet punch of that film, but it doesn’t have to. There are melancholy songs, and there is joyful noise. Despite a certain beguiling wistfulness, Carney’s latest is likely to leave you smiling — and itching to hear the songs you love most.
Cast: Keira Knightley, Mark Ruffalo, Adam Levine, Hailee Steinfeld, Mos Def, Catherine Keener.
Writer/director: John Carney.
A Weinstein Co. release. Running time: 104 minutes. Language. Playing in Miami-Dade: Aventura, South Beach; Palm Beach: Palace.