Film Review: Begin Again

Familiar contemporary spin on the “Let’s make it in the music biz” sub-genre benefits from an adoring abundance of downtown New York locations and another committed performance from Mark Ruffalo as a seriously distressed former label big shot.

Irish writer-director and musician John Carney (Once) turns to familiar territory with Begin Again, another cinematic foray into the music world. This time, there may be too much music (good and otherwise) and too many clichés of the record biz for one film to handle. Happily, Keira Knightley and Mark Ruffalo, playing two temporarily lost souls in the scene, keep uninspired matters fairly interesting.

Twenty- and thirty-something music fans with hipster leanings or longings and affection for Manhattan’s Lower East Side will have more fun than others with this; for others, the predictable elements and story arc and an avalanche of contemporary sounds may fall on deaf ears.

Carney’s story focuses on Dan (Mark Ruffalo), an urban loser who’s blown his chances. Looking close to a casting director’s dream of a homeless mess, he’s seriously estranged from his journalist wife Miriam (Catherine Keener), a lousy father to his rebellious teen daughter Violet (Hailee Steinfeld), and hopeless to his boss/former label partner Saul (Yasiin Bey), who fires him. Dan’s also abandoned by co-workers at the label he co-founded years ago and where he built a reputation for finding talent and knowing how to build a chart-bound arrangement around an otherwise mediocre song.

Now cold as a 30-year-old LP lying in a cutout bin, Dan drinks, wallows in self-pity and lets his untamed beard and hair take charge. Swinging through one divey music bar after another, he lands in one where Gretta (Keira Knightley), a Brit composer lamely accompanying herself on guitar, delivers a lousy rendition of one of her songs. It’s not that Gretta wanted to go up onstage—her friend Steve (James Corden) insisted she take the mic. He’s another struggling Brit musician playing clubs and streets who was Gretta’s best mate in the Mother Country and now, after her own relationship disaster, lets her share his messy digs cluttered with recording equipment and instruments.

Gretta and her song bomb, but Dan has the ears to know something promising when he hears it. Using his genius as a former A&R wiz, he imagines the orchestration to Gretta’s song (Carney visualizes this nicely as instruments onstage play themselves) and is inspired. He’s sprung from the funk that has enveloped him and is ready to rock ’n’ roll again. He goes after a reluctant Gretta, but she’s put off by his unkempt appearance until he shares his background and rep in the music biz. He’s the real deal.

With the usual push and tug a story like this requires (giving up, she’s headed back to the U.K.), Gretta eventually agrees to stay in New York and let Dan try to produce some of her material. As he gains her confidence, Gretta shares her own story of woe with him.

Carney does a nice job here structure-wise, breaking away from a clean arc to convey how the two professionally connect. Months before she hit bottom in the dive, Gretta came to the U.S. with her rising star of a rock singer boyfriend of five years, Dave (Maroon 5 frontman and “Voice” coach Adam Levine). He’s hit it big now that his songs are featured in a buzzed-about new movie. Courtesy of his label, Dave and Gretta found themselves living in a posh downtown loft. But, soon after, Gretta was unexpectedly dumped after Dave returned from a promotional stint in L.A., having fallen for his label’s publicist handler who accompanied him. With her guitar and not much else, she landed at Steve’s.

With Gretta now agreeing to Dan’s help, he busies himself getting some traction on her song. He brings a richer mix to Saul, but Saul wants a complete album. As Dan deals with personal matters on the family front, he’s struck with a brilliant idea. He will shoot all of Gretta’s songs, with Gretta and others performing, on New York locations using Steve’s stash of instruments and equipment. Dan also uses his knowhow (he hires serious classical-music students who welcome an opportunity to slum in rock) and many contacts from his years in the biz to further this effort. Significant among these is Troublegum (a funny Cee Lo Green), now an obscenely rich and showy rapper whom Dan helped back when. He becomes a most generous backer.

Embodying the DIY strategy, Dan, with help (his wife and daughter also join the cause), stages and shoots Gretta’s songs around New York (a subway station, a funky downtown alley, Central Park, vista-blessed rooftops, etc.). He brings the finished package back to Saul and the label gang and what happens thereafter is actually rather inspired.

Begin Again isn’t always predictable (there’s a nice twist or two) and one relationship is left a bit murky, suggesting either laziness or a grasp for originality on the part of the filmmaker. But the film does have an overall manufactured rather than organic feel. And that soundtrack needs pruning. But kudos to the cast and to Carney, who sounds the major, minor and flat notes of a biz gone digital.

Click here for cast & crew information.