Hidden amongst robots, apes, and kids with cancer is a little gem of a film called Begin Again. From the director of Once, John Carney, comes yet another film filled with music, love, and originality. At times Begin Again plays off as an underdog story of two down-on-their-luck people trying to make it big, but it also is a (literal) love song to the city of New York, as well as a tale of finding happiness in what you love to do.
The film opens with Greta (Keira Knightley) performing reluctantly on stage to a bar with people who don’t find her very good, save for one man, Dan (Mark Ruffalo), who persists on trying to sign her to a deal. We jump back in time to the events that led him to that bar. We find out he is an alcoholic who is separated from his wife (Catherine Keener), all while he is trying to maintain an almost severed relationship with his daughter, Violet (Hailee Steinfeld.) Dan’s glory days are over; he has not found a hit in years, and now, almost at the end of the line, he finds Greta. We switch perspectives and go back in time to see what led Greta to the bar. Her story is as down-putting as Dan’s; she came to New York with her singer boyfriend Dave (Adam Levine), only to have his success lead him into having affairs. Betrayed, alone, and feeling hopeless, she ends up staying with her friend who drags her along to the fortuitous meeting with Dan. Once they have met, they both see they need each other in this time of need, and so they begin to work together on an album.
Ruffalo and Knightley are grand together. Ruffalo is very convincing as an alcoholic father who desperately misses his wife and wishes he can put the pieces back together. At times he seems like Tom Cruise in Jerry Maguire (which is referenced in the film); ambitious and dedicated in trying to make his only shot a hit, but he is also flawed. He drinks, he does not appear to care for his daughter, and he has been hurt in more ways than we know at first. Ruffalo is definitely one of the most consistent actors in Hollywood these days. Knightley, however, truly shines and steals the spotlight. Her voice is so shockingly good that it’s hard to believe it is her singing at first, but it really is. This is certainly her best role in years, possibly the best since Atonement.
Supporting the two stars are a variety of musicians and actors. Keener and Steinfeld, the wife and daughter of Dan, are great but they are seen too little. It would have been nice to feature them a little more to increase our idea of what Dan is fighting for. Steinfeld, who just 4 years ago was a stern and rigid little girl in True Grit, is now a beautiful and graceful actress whose career is continuously going up. Adam Levine (from Maroon 5), though briefly seen as the love of Greta, proves that he has some decent acting chops even though it is his first feature film. Mos Def plays Ruffalo’s partner, and he does an adequate job with what he is given, though it does not standout as much as the other supporting roles. Rounding up the bunch is CeeLo Green, who is probably just playing himself, is entertaining but does not add all too much to the film in general.
What I found most charming about this film is its script. It is written in such a way that it isn’t linear. The time-shifts help us understand the motives and circumstances of the characters involved, while also adding a new edge to the tried-and-true story. But most importantly is the reason why Ruffalo got fired; he became too tired of the derivative and unoriginal pop music that fills the airwaves. He wanted a new sound, a new voice. He wanted originality, and that is what he saw in Greta. It is clear that for such a musical director, Carney has some grim viewpoints on the current state of the music industry. This film is almost a call for more original music. The film, like I stated earlier, is also a love letter to New York which has been done many times before (mainly by Woody Allen), but thanks to its beautiful soundtrack and the surprisingly talented Knightley, it allows it to not be another copycat, but instead shows New York in a new and different way.
In the end, Begin Again is a delightful little indie summer film that avoids explosions, robots, and big budgets in exchange for a talented cast, a somewhat original premise, and a great soundtrack that will have you tapping your feet by the end of the film. So, if you are tired of all the explosive sounds of the big-budget hits, go freshen your ears up with this wonderful little music-driven film.