BEGIN AGAIN. Mark Ruffalo, Keira Knightley, Adam Levine, Hailee Steinfeld. Directed by John Carney. 104 minutes. Rated M (Coarse language).
Following up on his acclaimed debut 'Once', writer and director John Carney has made a sweet film with heart and soul, ably abetted by a very good cast. With this effort, Carney has strongly monopolised the market on 'musicals (which aren't really musicals)'.
Gretta (Keira Knightley) is invited up onto the stage at a live gig to play one of her songs, an acoustic, pleasant enough tune. At its conclusion, an audience member is picked out by the camera – an enraptured (and fairly intoxicated) Dan (Mark Ruffalo). Through flashbacks, we learn that he has had the worst day imaginable – chewed up by his estranged daughter and fired from his position at the record company he co-founded, he has spent some time contemplating suicide. Another flashback delivers Gretta's equally awful preamble – finding out her music writing partner and boyfriend Dave (Adam Levine) wants to split up after he makes it big, and moving in with her musician friend Steve (James Corden) who takes her out to the gig to fight off her misery.
Though the set up sounds perfect for romance, 'Begin Again' is instead about a tight platonic friendship which couldn't come at a better time for its participants. Both Knightley and Ruffalo are formidable talents, and they have an easy chemistry which grounds their bond. As Dan, Ruffalo is a likable schlub, who masks his pain at his marriage troubles first with alcohol, then with burying himself in Gretta's music. One of his friends notes that with Dan having a bad few months, 'people lose sight of who he is', and watching his redemption is kind of charming for the audience. Despite the obvious and occasionally off-putting auto-tuning of her vocals, Keira Knightley is sweet and damaged as Gretta, and her subplot with her ex-boyfriend gives her good material to engage with. Knightley also has a very natural interaction with the talented young actress Hailee Steinfeld, who plays Dan's daughter. When Dan begins helping Gretta record an album played all over New York, you genuinely want them to succeed, because they come across as good people who have had a rough time. They're due for a win.
The outdoor performances (under bridges, in rowboats etc.) are consistently engaging despite effectively being music videos. This comes down to the pleasure of watching music being made and watching Dan's own joy as he produces it, and some nice and fluid camerawork from cinematographer Yaron Orbach. I found myself consciously curtailing an urge to applaud following the rooftop ditty featuring Dan's daughter on guitar. The songs in the film were written by a talented bunch led by Gregg Alexander, and are good throughout the film. Their tone often reflects the themes of the preceding scenes, and they take on a deeper resonance, particularly the song which Knightley opens the film with. The underlying reflection on art versus commerce is packaged nicely by the story, and Mos Def delivers a great turn as Dan's former partner Saul, tinged with a weary resignation to the nature of his business.
When Dave re-enters the picture as a repentant man who realises what he has lost, Carney's script may be a tad too predictable and neat. However its warmth and gentle humour are winning, the conclusion to the piece is fitting, and professional musician (as the lead singer of band 'Maroon 5') Adam Levine's faults as an actor fade away when his wonderful singing is utilised to moving effect.
Though some of its darker moments will take this film out of contention with the younger age brackets, 'Begin Again' is by and large a film for everyone who has ever been touched by music. Its former title was 'Can A Song Save Your Life?', and this feels like a good reflection of the movie. To answer this question would take more than a few hundred words, but John Carney and his solid cast has made a strong case for the affirmative.
Callum Ryan is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.
Out August 7.