Can a song save your life? That was the original title of “Begin Again,” and as unwieldy as it is, it expresses the film’s yearning, romantic tone. It may not be realistic, but it’s the kind of fantasy any music lover will happily indulge.
John Carney, who also wrote and directed the 2006 sleeper hit “Once,” has a bigger budget and real movie stars this time, but he still loves the idea of low-fi artistic purity. The non-linear story involves Dan (Mark Ruffalo), who runs an indie record label in New York City with a longtime friend (Mos Def).
“Runs” is a generous term, as Dan spends most of his time drunk and depressed, still reeling from his separation from his wife (Catherine Keener) and teenage daughter (Hailee Steinfeld).
After one too many meltdowns, Dan is fired from his own company, but redemption is just an open mic night away. While drowning his sorrows, Dan sees a performance by Gretta (Keira Knightley), a young songwriter visiting the city with her newly famous boyfriend (Maroon 5 frontman Adam Levine). Captivated by her talent, Dan determines to make her a star, but she has a different set of priorities.
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“Begin Again” is constructed like a song, with scenes repeating and intersecting, varying slightly each time. Carney digs into Dan and Gretta’s personal lives, showing how their musical sensibilities affect everything they do.
In one telling scene, Gretta figures out what her boyfriend did on a trip to L.A. just by listening to part of his latest song. It’s a connection that borders on the spiritual, even for characters who proudly live in the “real world.”
As with “Once,” the songs in “Begin Again” are lovely and catchy, and Carney takes a creative approach to the challenge of success in the modern music scene. But as Dan and Gretta reach for authenticity, Carney seems afraid to do the same. The songs are dubbed instead of performed live, and the gritty, street-level aesthetic ends up as carefully polished as any pop hit.
Carney still resists the urge to become too clichéd, despite plenty of opportunities, and he lets his actors play to their strengths. Knightley’s bracing Englishness cuts through the easygoing ramble of Ruffalo’s performance.
The supporting characters are fairly shallow, but “Begin Again” is about the power of music to save two very specific damaged souls. Watching that happen may sometimes have you rolling your eyes, but you’ll be smiling just the same.
Rated R for language.
Rated R | Time: 1:45