Music and movies can make a great couple when the right filmmaker is at the controls. Music can elevate scenes inside a flick and take them to another place while transforming the film from a visual pleasure into something with feeling and emotion. John Carney provided audiences with a taste of this wicked combination with Once, a film about two Irish singers who fall in love during the production of an album. It was also about two lost souls coming together and using every ounce of ability they had in order to recapture their lives. Carney takes that easy going formula and broadens the horizons with Begin Again, a tremendously heartfelt film starring Mark Ruffalo and Keira Knightley. He switches the locale from London to New York and inserts real life musicians Adam Levine and Ceelo Green into the fold.
The plot is simple. Dan Mulligan(Ruffalo) is a down on his luck music producer and he is on the edge of dropping everything when he stumbles into a bar and hears Greta(Knightley) spinning an acoustic to a clearly uninterested bar of young souls. Carney is a genius here, as he shows Dan coming to the center of the room, drunk and staggering yet clearly inspired and feeling rejuvenated. Greta is simply sitting on a stool singing while producing some light rhythm with the guitar, but Dan sees the drums kicking up in his head and he pictures a cello and violin getting involved into the process. Right before our eyes, Carney is showing us how a simple page of lyrics and a voice can be the beginning of something special. As he tells Greta later, this is where greatness happens and one can see clearly. When you are your lowest point, drunk and seemingly out of options. Dan sees something in Greta and together, they do something nobody has done before. Create a live album around New York City. Everything else is icing on the cake.
The dialogue produced by Carney is spot on. It’s brutal, real and doesn’t ignore the cutthroat mindset that many people run into when working in the music industry. The cast handles it extremely well, with Hailee Steinfield, Catherine Keener, and Mos Def contributing solid supporting work along with Levine in a role that may not turn him into a movie star but reveals that there is more to him than Maroon 5. James Corden provides the epic comic relief as Greta’s friend from London who makes NYC seem a little less serious. Corden is a Tony Award winning performer and brings an array of abilities to the table.
The film hinges, though, on the adventures Ruffalo and Knightley take together. Each character they play has taken a beating in life(shown in flashbacks or storytelling from the character) and their journey takes a few unexpected turns. Their interactions, especially one involving an all night tour of the city tuned to Greta’s playlist, elevates the film to another level that other romantic dramas fall off. The scenes are authentic and the movie plays like an ode to the city but also like a theater play taken to the streets. The movie doesn’t feel staged. It comes off like it was filmed beat by beat on the fly. Carney never lets the classic cliches of past films sneak into his project here, and it’s something he achieved with Once.
Ruffalo is on a hot streak, and its one that he has been on since his career took off with 2000’s You Can Count On Me, where he played the troublesome brother of Laura Linney. From there, he has blazed a trail that includes We Don’t Live Here Anymore, Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind, Collateral, Zodiac, Brothers Bloom, The Kids Are Alright, Shutter Island, and hit a pinnacle with his role as Bruce Banner/The Hulk in the Avengers. This week, he stars opposite Channing Tatum and Steve Carell in Bennett Miller’s Foxcatcher and he already hit a home run with HBO’s A Normal Heart. Ruffalo doesn’t hoist the film here on his shoulders, but he is the beat that the film rolls forward on. Knightley is great as well but Ruffalo is the guy you connect with initially and can relate to. A man who has taken his fair share of shots and burned more than a few bridges in life but has a gift that can’t be denied.
The film doesn’t falter in it’s final third but hits a new high. It goes in directions that other films wouldn’t be confident enough to take a step in. New York serves as a backdrop, muse and a supporting character all at the same time. Certain directors like to hit the popular spots of the big apple but Carney goes there in addition to other quieter and beautiful areas. He shoots in different parks, finds the streets with no names and brings attention to the underground part of the town.
Begin Again is easy on the eyes and will enrich you with great storytelling, confident acting and great music. This is the kind of film that you want to keep watching. You want to follow the characters around more after the credits roll. You develop a connection with them and care for their future. Few films do that. Carney creates that here. If he can keep making wonderful music themed films, Hollywood will be a better place.
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