Director John Carney returns to a similar topic of inspiration that brought him so much success with Once in Begin Again. In fact so similar are the basic premises of Once and Begin Again it could easily be seen as a more mainstream incarnation but that is not to say that lightning doesn’t strike twice for Carney’s pseudo indie musical styling’s.
Dan (Mark Ruffalo) isn’t having a very good day; he over-slept, was late picking up his teenage daughter Violet (Hailee Steinfeld), was fired from record label and finally humiliated by his ex-wife (Catherine Keener). But that’s all before he runs into Greta (Keira Knightley) at an open-mic-night in a New York bar. Greta has been going through a rough patch herself; arriving in New York with her rapidly fame growing boyfriend Dave (Adam Levine) she feels alienated and before long has cottoned on that Dave is now in love with one of his record label executives. So when Dan hears something in Greta’s music that captures his imagination the two must put aside their hang-ups and work together on an album like no other.
Begin Again takes a little while to get going, anxious to tell us Dan and Greta’s back-stories as to how their worlds finally collide but once they do, it’s something kind of magic. Witnessing these two lonely souls find solace in their music manages to be hugely warming. Much of the story is told through musical montage but it refuses to stand still, Carney constantly allowing for scenes injected with huge pathos and honest emotion to keep you firmly engaged.
The music itself is part of the charm. All the original songs are written by New Radicals front man Gregg Alexander and perfectly capture Dan and Greta’s outlook on the world. What is more, all the tunes feel organic, never forced into the narrative like a more out-and-out musical but instead gestating from Greta’s emotions and perfectly commentating on her and Dan’s headspace. So infectious and toe-tappingly enjoyable is the music of Begin Again you’ll find yourself running to iTunes to download the accompanying album.
Carney meanwhile brings the music and city to vibrant life. Shooting, like the musicians record, with a natural and rough-and-ready style you’re transported to a less glamorous New York than we’re used to seeing but an ultimately more intimate one, one in which street kids stop their racket to join in with the music, one in which grubby apartments and run-down alleys bring an authentic charm.
But what makes Begin Again one of the most endearing films of the year so far are two brilliant central performances. Keira Knightley, in a role originally slated for Scarlett Johansson, is hopelessly adorable as Greta, finding a level of damaged vulnerability that has hereto been absent in most of her roles. What is more Knightley can sing, and sing really well. Here vocals aren’t going to rival Adele but there’s a natural and charming breathy sense of heartbreaking turmoil to her singing that is hugely captivating. Ruffalo meanwhile remains one of cinema’s most reliably great actors. Often understated and disheveled his Dan is real, brutally honest and scarred in such a way as to make him hopelessly adorable. In another actor’s hands Dan could well have become a mean old drunk but Ruffalo finds a level sympathetic pain that lurks just beneath that sad-sack face, a cuddly bear you pray is able to find the happiness that is otherwise eluding him.
When Knightley and Ruffalo are on screen together Begin Again picks you up to places films rarely manage. You find yourself rooting for this pair so much that there’s a perfectly implied, yet thankfully avoided, sense of attraction between them. It’s never overt and almost certainly never sexual but instead a case of two lost souls finding a guardian angel in the other’s presence.
In a year chock-full of giant robots, crushing monsters and loud-mouthed superheroes Begin Again is like a cool breeze on a humid day. It’s refreshing, calming and hugely uplifting.