John Carney’s Begin Again is nearly identical to his movie Once, but slicker, prettier, and more sentimental. It’s still pretty good.
John Carney’s film Once is one of the best musicals of the last 25 years, and easily one of the best films of the decade. It’s a film that, through a genuine and organic passion, explains the heart-rending, deeply rooted adoration of music as a means of true emotional expression. Making music – writing it, improvising it, spit-polishing it, and recording it on the fly – is, in Carney’s world, the purest form of emotion. In Once, not only did we feel his artistic ecstasy, but we were treated to an on-screen romance between two real-life musicians who, over the course of the filming, actually did fall in love. It’s one of the only instances of actual love occurring in front of a camera.
With his new film, Begin Again, he is trying to recapture the magic using pretty much the same story and the same themes, only this time in America, and using actors rather than actual musicians. There can, naturally, only be a level of diminished impact through the repetition, but that doesn’t mean that the magic is wholly lost. Carney still infuses his film with an overtly sentimental passion for music and the making thereof that it’s hard not to relate throughout certain segments. This is a film wherein a woman listens to a new song by her musician boyfriend, and instantly recognizes that it was written for a woman other than her. Music is everything to Carney, it’s everything to the characters, and, while you’re watching his movies, it may be everything to you too.
The story is largely the same as Once. A pair of wounded souls come together to record an album, fall in love, but never consummate their relationship because one of them is married, and having that love wafting through the air – like music – is more beautiful, in the moment, than building a relationship. One the one hand you have Dan (Mark Ruffalo in full-tilt schlumpy mode) a one-time hotshot talent scout who is on the outs with his label (co-run with Yasiin Bey, better known as Mos Def). He is often drunk, filthy, and living away from his embittered wife (Catherine Keener) and alienated teenage daughter (Hailee Steinfeld), whom he barely pays attention to. Into his life stumbles Greta (Keira Knightley, always better at flighty city girls than swooning 19th-century lasses), a songwriter and musician who is smarting from her recent breakup with Dave (Adam Levine) a callow pop star on the rise. Dan and Greta eventually learn that they would do well by each other, despite their mutual poverty, and resolve to record an album together, using New York City as their studio – each song is to be recorded in a different outdoor location. Cee Lo Green appears as essentially himself.
The catharses in Begin Again come in gentle loving moments between friends, and not grand romantic gestures between star-crossed lovers. Sure, it’s sappy, and – thanks to Carney’s newly-discovered Hollywood sheen – can play as contrived in certain small moments; the NYC date wherein Ruffalo and Knightley share an iPod playlist whilst wandering through Times Square is a little clunky. And I can’t look past the fact that the swooning “we’re moving to New York” sequence, filmed through an iPhone, plays exactly like an Apple ad. Overall, though, I was too taken by the music and by the romance to much care about many of the film’s weaknesses. The performances are strong – you put Ruffalo and Keener in your film, and something has to go right – and the resolutions gentle. It’s what publicists might call a feel-good movie.
Born Again‘s most glaring weakness, however, comes from the mere fact that this has already been done, better, by the same filmmaker. It’s nice to see him exploring similar material, but if you’ve seen Once, you’ve already seen the superior film.