Jim Eaton-Terry kicks off a week of music-related articles with a review of John Carney’s follow up to the world-conquering Once.
One of Keira Knightley’s first spoken lines in Begin Again is “I’m not Judy Garland”. John Carney’s New York musical drama is terribly conscious of the shadows of other films, whether that be A Star Is Born, Marc Lawrence’s Washed Up Hugh Grant Trilogy, or Carney’s own brilliant Once, another bittersweet fairy story about musicians in a city.
As the film opens, both Knightley’s Greta and Ruffalo’s Dan are adrift in a New York seemingly entirely populated by musicians, failed musicians, and music executives. After an opening scene in which Dan, a drunk and recently fired record company boss, approaches Greta after a miserable, low-key performance at a club and offers to sign her, the film loops back twice to show how both of them reached that point, before embarking on the story of how they put together an album. As the musical story evolves, the relationship drama widens to include Dan’s ex-wife and teenage daughter as well as Greta’s rock star ex, played hilariously by Adam Levine of Maroon 5 as a nightmarish hybrid of James Blunt and Josh Groban.
As with Once, Begin Again really comes alive whenever there’s music on screen. The early scene in which Mark Ruffalo imagines an arrangement for Greta’s club performance is an awful idea which works both because of the two performances and because of the genuine sense of delight in the possibilities of music which Carney manages to capture. Similarly, while the “let’s put on the show right here” scenes of guerilla recordings on the streets of New York are incredibly contrived (and the use of studio recordings threatens to undermine them completely) they’re done with so much energy and commitment that you’re carried along with the characters. There’s no doubt, by the end, that Mos Def’s sleazy (and astoundingly bearded; in Carney’s world heroes have stubble while villains have huge, luxurious face fungus) label boss will be desperate to release Greta’s record once it is complete.
Outside of the recording sequences (and a lovely scene in which the two leads wander the city at night, sharing music on headphones and teetering on the precipice of a kiss), the film falls a little flatter. The relationship beats progress roughly as you’d expect, and some of the dialogue (especially during the early scenes in which Ruffalo appears to be so epically full of shit that I wasn’t sure he wasn’t going to be revealed to be a total fraud) rings false. Whenever things get too indulgent, though, there’s a musical scene to bring the film back into focus.
The other great strength of the film is the performances, from the two leads who have never been more charming, to the supporting cast – James Corden’s shambling busker, Hailee Steinfeld and Catherine Keener as Dan’s estranged family, and a gleeful cameo from Cee-Lo Green – who give the film a sense of a fully realised world that goes beyond the standard romantic comedy format.
Ultimately, though, what lingers after the film ends is the music, and Carney’s absolute genius for capturing the love of performance and songwriting.
Begin Again is released on DVD and Blu-Ray today