It’s singer-songwriter night at a smoky, greasy bar in New York City. A portly English fellow finishes a song and invites a friend onstage. She is livid; she doesn’t like to be put on the spot, but her friend insists, and the crowd eggs her on.
She agrees, holds her guitar, and begins to sing. Somewhere in the crowd, a drunk, unkempt man rises from his seat at the bar and approaches the stage, thoroughly captivated by the performance.
This is how Begin Again, well, begins. Written and directed by John Carney, the film stars Mark Ruffalo, Keira Knightley, and, making his feature film debut, Maroon 5 frontman Adam Levine.
Carney is an Irish filmmaker who is perhaps best known for an earlier film called Once, which has become something of a modern classic for its simple story about two musicians who develop an almost-romance that is thwarted by the inconveniences of real life.
Once, which won an Academy Award for Best Song (“Falling Slowly”), is a modern musical in that the songs played in the film are set organically into the story; there are no pauses for a music video-style montage. The same cinematic style is utilized in Begin Again, transporting the action from the streets of Dublin, Ireland to the electric avenues of the Big Apple.
Music is such an integral part of Carney’s oeuvre that it’s almost like its own character. While he worked with main cast members Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova (both of whom are professional musicians as well as actors) in Once, for this movie, he enlisted the services of Gregg Alexander – some people may recognize him as the frontman of defunct 90s alternative group The New Radicals.
Alexander composed many of the songs in the film, which should appeal to fans of acoustic guitar-driven music. The songs chuck the toothache-inducing, saccharine sweetness of bubblegum pop in favor of raw, honest, hey-that’s-me-they’re-singing-about reality.
This is exactly what a film like Begin Again needs, and in this respect, it’s already a winner. There is a feeling of discovering a new artist, and being treated to awesome new music, and for any true music fan, that’s one of the best feelings in the world.
So the music’s good – what about the actors? Knightley, who plays the waifish singer-songwriter Greta, is earnest and engaging. She makes you want to root for her, especially during the scene immediately after confronting her rock star boyfriend (played by Levine) about an alleged indiscretion.
She is completely natural and believable, and, as if she hasn’t done enough, she sings, too. (Spoiler alert: Her voice is adorable).
For his part, Levine is a revelation. As a hotshot rock star, he is effectively playing himself, and while that may not be much of a stretch, he proves he can more than hold his own against seasoned actors. I suspect a career on the big screen isn’t out of the question for the frontman of one of the most popular bands on the planet.
It is Ruffalo though, whom I completely bought into. Playing a down-on-his-luck record industry executive named Dan Mulligan, the guy we’ve previously seen playing Bruce Banner (aka The Hulk) conveys arrogance and vulnerability so convincingly that it feels effortless.
Ruffalo is the quintessential everyman and it is a testament to his skills as an actor that it is his journey to redemption that I found myself following in this film.
Also worth noting are the gorgeous shots of New York City, as a ragtag team of musicians attempt to record an album everywhere except inside a proper recording studio. (I was actually reminded of Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist, another music-themed film set against the city’s indie rock scene).
After the unexpected success of Once, it may be easy to brush off Begin Again as nothing more than its Hollywood-ized version. Not necessarily. Carney obviously feels there is much more to say about the power of music to change people’s lives, and he communicates that brilliantly in this film.
It is possible for a song to save a life; if only we would have the courage to tune everything else out and just listen. – Rappler.com
Paul John Caña is the managing editor of Lifestyle Asia magazine and is a live music geek. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @pauljohncana