John Carney’s 2006 musical romance Once was a genuine delight, a sweet-hearted surprise of a film about a Dublin busker and the immigrant woman he falls in love with, punctuated with songs.
Low key, told with real warmth and a lightness of touch that meant it never descended into schmaltz, Once was a charmer, a celebration of music and romance.
Carney uses a similar template for Begin Again but relocates the music and drama to New York but there is a similarly uplifting, celebratory feel.
The first scene sees us at a open mic night in a small club where a nervous young English woman Gretta (Knightley) is cajoled into singing one of her songs on the stage by her fellow Brit Steve (James Corden). For most people there, it’s a pleasant enough acoustic tale of loss and heartbreak, but amongst the crowd is record producer and A&R man Dan (Mark Ruffalo) who hears something more, something special in Gretta’s song.
Rewind a few hours and we get Dan’s back story. He’s a drunk, drowning his sorrows to numb the pain of his failed marriage and his stalled career. Gretta’s story isn’t much better. She’s a lost soul in New York after her pop star boyfriend cheats on her while recording his album, and is on the verge of returning to England.
Fate, it would seem, has thrown Dan and Gretta together but things don’t run smoothly at first. Dan’s enthusiasm for her music is met by scepticism from Gretta and understandably so… Who is this drunken middle-aged stranger raving about her songs? But she sees something in Dan just as he sees something in her and they agree to collaborate. The label Dan co-founded but has just been sacked isn’t interested so the unlikely duo decide to embark on a series of field recordings to make an album using friends and favours to make the music and with the everyday hustle and bustle of the city as a backdrop.
That Begin Again isn’t so damn life-affirming it could make you bilious is a blessing. You could see how it could have easily ended up a fizzy comedy romance with familiar dilemmas resolved and everyone’s problems sorted out at the end. Thankfully, John Carney’s film is only mildly life-affirming, the director throwing in some more reflective, realistic moments to counterbalance the froth. Although the film does provide resolutions for the characters, these aren’t necessarily happy endings… More, as the title suggests, new beginnings.
Begin Again‘s greatest asset is Mark Ruffalo whose shambling, twinkle-eyed charisma makes Dan the driving force of the piece. While not quite as convincing, Keira Knightley hits the right notes (ha ha!) as the posh English girl struggling to find herself after a relationship break-up in an unfamiliar city.
The songs she sings range from the heartfelt to more MOR, radio-friendly fare but the energy and excitement of the performances carry you through some of the more schmaltzy moments. While not as affecting as Once, Begin Again oozes easy charm (thanks to Ruffalo) and it also captures the buzz of New York well. It’s not earth-shattering stuff, but it’s an enjoyable way to spend a couple of hours.