Star Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
A few months ago, I wrote a review for John Carney’s 2016 film Sing Street, and this past weekend I had the opportunity to finally watch his 2013 film Begin Again. Starring Mark Ruffalo and Keira Knightley, Begin Again tells the story of two people involved with music who have an unconventional approach to the industry. Compared to his previous film, Once, Begin Again tells a much more complex story that includes a larger number of characters and plot threads. Seeing the film after Once and Sing Street, it becomes obvious that this film is transitory; a middle step from simple to more complex stories.
Mark Ruffalo plays Dan, an apparently down on his luck record label “hot shot” who founded his own record label that originally had a different way of finding talent. Keira Knightley plays Gretta, a musician who finds herself alone in New York after her boyfriend’s music career takes a different direction than their relationship had intended. In the midst of a drunken stupor, Dan finds himself in a bar listening to Gretta perform one of her songs. During her performance Dan imagines a plethora of instruments accompanying her and changing her sound from a generic acoustic performance to something interesting to listen to. Dan introduces himself to Gretta and together they decide to work outside of the industry to make an album that sets itself apart from the polished studio albums Dan’s record label and Gretta’s ex-boyfriend produce. In the midst of all of this Dan works on the relationship with his daughter and ex-wife, and Gretta tries to reconcile the new person her ex-boyfriend has become after all their years growing up together.
It’s difficult to appreciate the new challenge that Carney presented himself with in this film after seeing him succeed with Sing Street. The plot of Dan and Gretta working on an album together is no different than the main story arc in Once or Sing Street. All three times the main characters are doing it to impress someone they either love or care about, and along the way they discover a bond through music that transcends their desire to impress whoever they are trying to impress. In Begin Again Dan is trying to show his record label that he can still find and produce new, good, talent, while Gretta is working through her emotions toward her ex-boyfriend, while simultaneously, it seems, trying to impress him with success from her own natural talent and sound. Along the way, Dan’s story branches off to include showing his daughter that he is not a drunken failure, and through that reconciling his relationship with his ex-wife in some way. So much of the story is devoted to Dan trying to make Gretta’s album, that the plot with his daughter becomes secondary and unimportant. When they ask his daughter to play guitar on one of the song tracks, Dan’s ex-wife makes a comment that she isn’t good at guitar, but when the time comes Dan’s daughter is able to play perfectly fine through the magic of music. Gretta does help Dan with his relationship with his daughter, but by the end of the film the plot moves so quickly that it seems unnecessary. In the same way, Gretta and her ex seem unimportant because of how it ends up tacked onto the end. Gretta’s ex-boyfriend is clearly meant to be a foil to Gretta’s journey since he signs with a major label and his album (full of songs written by Gretta) has a generic, pop star sound compared to Gretta’s indie sound. But their emotional journey lacks substance since we only have a few scenes with them discussing how life turned out so differently for the two of them. By the time it becomes clear what is happening and why he is included in the story again, the film has ended.
Compared to Once and Sing Street, Begin Again had a “big budget” feel to it. It is as if after the success of Once a major study wanted to recreate that success and experience on a larger scale with two big name actors. While there is nothing inherently wrong with this, the film felt less genuine than Once or Sing Street. Keira Knightley’s performance seems genuine, but it is wooden, like she’s too nervous about tackling a role in which she has to sing and play the guitar. The unfortunate thing is that her performance is better than Mark Ruffalo’s through almost the entirety of the film. Through the film, Ruffalo almost seems like he’s out of place. His acting is never bad, but his deliverance seems artificial. The only scene in the entire film that seemed genuine was when he is walking around New York with Gretta listening to an iPod together. Adam Levine was surprisingly natural and so was James Corden who is always a delight to see in anything because of the humor he brings to his roles. I think Carney shines when he has either non-actors or new stars in his films. His stories deal with timid outsiders who find their identities in music and others like them. Nothing creates a timid outsider on screen like a first-time actor or a non-actor who is nervous about making a film.
What Carney brings to the table in Begin Again is an ambitious attempt at creating a more complex story than his previous film. It is not quite as successful in execution as Sing Street, but it is far from being anything resembling a bad film. All of the main Carney staples are present. The soundtrack isn’t nearly as fun as Sing Street or as pleasant to listen to as Once. It’s enjoyable, but ultimately it’s not in contention for being considered his Beaty film.