A labor of love. Begin Again by writer-director John Carney (“Once”) contains some of the sweetest moments of the year. I was skeptical of this musical comedy-drama at first: Mark Ruffalo is Dan Mulligan, an off the wagon alcoholic record label executive who catches a lounge act ballad and believes he can turn the artist and the song into a hit. The singer is leery, disbelieving English dame Gretta James (Keira Knightley) and the song is lacking serious arrangements – back-up violin, drums, piano. Dan however envisions enhancements that his partner doesn’t see, so he pledges to produce it himself. Forgoing investment in a studio recording, Dan comes up with the [cinematic!] gimmick to record the album’s songs live in the New York public.
I am skeptical of musicals because most modern-day musicals don’t… have enough music. Or they don’t have good music. “Begin Again” has plenty of good music.
I am skeptical of the plot of the virtuoso talent who doesn’t have the courage to chase their professional dream. “Begin Again” spends a few minutes to go into the characters’ back stories via flashback. Dan flinches while listening to some piss-poor demo tapes in his beat-up Rolls Royce, arrives batty and confrontational at work, picks up estranged daughter from school, gets drunk. Gretta arrives to town with her boyfriend (Adam Levine, TV’s “The Voice” judge does very impressive first-time acting), a musician on the brink of fame, and whose fame quickly goes to his head leading to the couples’ break-up. That’s the formulaic back story initially but there’s more layers there, we learn. Some of them are layers bespeckled with fun details. The film wins because of its genuine human nature.
Let’s finish up the summary of the plot: Dan saves Gretta, who is fed-up with New York, from going home to the UK. They’re going to make this album together, they’re a perfect mismatched pair – that makes it perfect! But nobody is going to bankroll their studio session. “You need a desk, a live room and soundproofing,” Gretta insists. But Dan’s idea is novel: “Laptop, Pro Tools, a couple dynamic mics, and the city is our live room.” They will hire accompaniment for backend pay, no permits, just go out and record. I think there’s a few brief moments of Dan shooting the album cover with his snapshot camera. Anywho… when it comes down to it this is a film about the creation and craft of an album. Carney’s previous film “Once,” 2006’s little film that could, besides the love story underneath was about the craft of a demo record single. Similarities. I liked that film a lot, I love this one.
Ruffalo and Knightley are doing star turns for sake of feel-good entertainment, and Knightley gets the laurels for doing her own singing. It’s harder than you think to come up with feel-good entertainment that’s this breezy and with a good beat, and this one soars. “Begin Again” also works as a love story although after awhile we are not even sure it’s a love story. But it feels like one – these two people make each other fall in love with music all over again, that’s foremost. Despite character flaws in Dan and Gretta’s back stories, they are good, sweet people. What’s wrong with star-turns by actors playing talented people with a good heart? The bittersweet message is found in the main song “Lost Stars.” The last shots of the movie are a wistful beaut.
Hailee Steinfeld, James Corden, Catherine Keener, CeeLo Green, and Mos Def all deliver mature, thought-out or just plain fun performances. “Can a Song Save Your Life?” was the movie’s original title, and it probably would have rang a truer bell had it been used. Nevertheless, “Begin Again” is the kind of wish-fulfillment fantasy – gutted enough in the real world – that’s spunky and wonderful enough to make it one of the year’s best films. If it’s not on other critic’s list, it’s because feel-good and wonderful are not significant enough traits in a film. And God help me, because this specific film merits this disclosure: If there’s ever been an actress I’ve wanted to kiss more it’s Keira Knightley.
*Due to my hectic year juggling personal family issues, I have seen less titles this year than usual. I’m glad I doubled back, it’s one of the best films of the year and think now that it on DVD it’s a perfect family room play for the holiday season.
104 Minutes. Rated R.
MUSICAL COMEDY-DRAMA / INSPIRATIONAL / SATURDAY NIGHT ROUSER
Film Cousins: “That Thing You Do!” (1996); “Once” (2006, Ireland); “Music and Lyrics” (2007); “We Are the Best!” (2014, Sweden).