When the bassist turned filmmaker John Carney was young, a borrowed Walkman played while cycling to school was an epiphany.
“The idea of personalized music was outrageous to me,” said the Irish writer-director. “My life changed. I could now make this journey in an imaginative state. You could suddenly be listening to a Malcolm McLaren song or Grand Master Flash.”
Carney’s latest film, “Begin Again,” which opens Wednesday in Kansas City, is a love letter to the transformative power of music — the way it can chart our lives and provide solace for trying times. It’s an earnest reminder of the simple majesty of music, even in the disposable age of iTunes. The original title was “Can a Song Save Your Life?” and there’s no doubt as to the film’s answer.
It’s a follow-up of sorts to Carney’s 2006 Oscar-winning indie sensation “Once,” which chronicles a musical romance between a Dublin busker and a recent Ireland immigrant, who join for an unlikely, uplifting recording session. “Begin Again” moves to New York, but it, too, exudes a heart-on-the-sleeve sincerity about collaborative music-making and an abiding affection for street-level authenticity.
Mark Ruffalo stars as a divorced, middle-aged record executive struggling in the modern, recalibrated music industry. He’s grown cynical, furiously tossing CDs out of his car window, desperate for something with feeling. He drunkenly stumbles across it at a Lower East Side club, where an unknown British singer (Keira Knightley) bewilders him. He pursues her and cobbles together a band to back her on an outdoor album recorded around New York.
Knightley’s character is also lost, having come to the U.S. with her musician boyfriend (Maroon 5 frontman Adam Levine), only to see his sudden onset of pop stardom leave her behind.
The mix of disciplines — music and movies — is seen throughout “Begin Again.” CeeLo Green and Yasiin Bey (also known as Mos Def) play supporting roles. Knightley sings despite little previous experience.
“For me, the two things are almost married,” says Carney of cinema and music.
Carney, 42, was a member of the Irish band the Frames before turning to directing their music videos. He also wrote some of the songs in “Begin Again,” which came out of imagining what happened to A&R guys he saw trolling Dublin in early ’90s, looking for “the next U2.”
“He’s sincere,” says Ruffalo of Carney. “He’s earnest about his art and his filmmaking.”
Ruffalo identified with what he calls “the inner unrest” reflected in “Begin Again,” a movie he said that’s about people “getting back to themselves.”
Shot in only 24 days, “Begin Again” was made with the same lo-fi aesthetic of its music, which meant working quickly, improvising dialogue and finding ad hoc locations.
“I was completely out of my comfort zone,” says Knightley. “I’d never really been on films where the space isn’t safe. This film was very much like if there was a street corner where it looked like we might get away with shooting for a little while, we’d jump out of the van and try to do it there.”
Levine was also trying something different — acting in a movie for the first time. As someone who experienced firsthand what it’s like to go from an unknown to enormously famous nearly overnight, he was uniquely qualified to play a character who did the same thing.
“Having that happen to you is a very unique and highly unnatural situation to be put in,” Levine says. “The things that kind of went haywire as a result … it’s not going to be a smooth transition.”
“That’s what connected me to this (character),” Levine says. “I saw so much of myself in him 10 years ago.”
Despite the influence of music on Carney’s life, he hasn’t personally listened to it for some time, following the death of a family member.
“Music is too much for me to listen to because it’s like an intravenous expression of emotion,” he says. “I can’t go there.”