Back in 2007, Irish TV writer John Carney made his first film, a slender little romance called Once that was mostly intended to showcase his musician friends Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová and their songs. He figured the movie would sell a few DVDs at their concerts. Instead, it became an indie hit, made many critics’ lists of the year’s best films (including mine), won an Oscar for Best Song, and spawned a successful Broadway adaptation. Now comes Carney’s second movie, Begin Again, and much like Once, it’s pulsing with music and unrequited love, and it’s awfully hard to resist.
The movie begins with its main couple meeting. Dan (Mark Ruffalo) is a Grammy-winning record producer whose worsening alcoholism has just forced his business partner (Mos Def, acting under his given name of Yasiin Bey) to fire him from the label that they founded together. Gretta (Keira Knightley) is a British musician who follows her boyfriend Dave (Adam Levine) to New York just as his career as a singer-songwriter goes supernova. Once his musical partner, Gretta is shunted off to the side as Dave’s fame takes precedence, and then he cheats on her. She’s about to fly back to England when a friend drags her up on stage at a club where he’s playing and makes her perform one of her songs. Dan is getting wasted at the bar and contemplating suicide until he hears her sing and vows to produce her first album.
Most of the songs here are by Gregg Alexander, a longtime composer who’s still best known for fronting The New Radicals in the late 1990s before being scared away from performing by the runaway success of their hit “You Get What You Give.” He’s in much lesser form here, I’m afraid. Gretta’s opening number “A Step You Can’t Take Back” is way too on-the-nose, and her mid-tempo rocker “Tell Me If You Wanna Go Home” is eminently forgettable. The same goes for the breakup anthem “Like a Fool,” even if it is the subject of a scene that qualifies as the greatest drunk-dial in movie history. The score as a whole is missing the undercurrent of anger that invigorated Once, and the number of filler songs bodes ill for this movie’s chances of becoming a Broadway musical.
The movie’s larger scale doesn’t suit the filmmaker, either. Dan’s relationship with his ex-wife (Catherine Keener) is hazy, and it stretches belief that a few words from Gretta are all that’s needed to get Dan’s daughter Violet (Hailee Steinfeld) to start dressing more modestly. This is made more digestible by Carney’s finely honed sense of verbal and visual comedy, as in a bit when Gretta and her music-school pal (James Corden) get drunk and make fun of the hipster beard Dave has grown.
The comedy is enhanced by the performances, musical and otherwise. The songs don’t overtax Knightley’s small alto, and the movie’s best number, Gretta’s version of “Lost Stars,” showcases some beautiful notes at the top of her register. I’ve never been the biggest fan of this actress, but she’s more relatable and charming here than she has ever been, thanks to her singing and the movie’s comedic contemporary milieu. Ruffalo is similarly uncorked, especially in an early scene when Dan sits in his car and grows more and more enraged as he listens to demos of bad music. Later on, after Dan decides to record Gretta’s album in outdoor locations around New York, the actor makes a tasty bit out of a scene when Dan tries to quiet a group of neighborhood kids while they’re recording.
The musical contributions come from other quarters, too. Say what you want to about Levine, but the guy can flat-out sing, and he imposes his rock star’s vocal authority on “No One Else Like You” and Dave’s version of “Lost Stars,” a keening, anguished, piercingly beautiful take on the ballad. (It’s good that he does, given that the Maroon 5 frontman turns out to be not much of an actor.) Steinfeld joins in on a track, too, and the teenage Oscar nominee turns out to play a mean guitar.
This film was entitled Can a Song Save Your Life? during its production, and Carney, a musician himself, clearly answers yes. Despite its jabs at the recording industry, Begin Again is shot through with an uncomplicated belief in the power of music. Make something beautiful, share it with the world, and your life will have meaning, say Carney’s films. Who’s to say that he’s wrong? His movies avoid traditional romantic endings, and yet Carney may just be the most purely romantic filmmaker out there.
Starring Keira Knightley and Mark Ruffalo. Written and directed by John Carney. Rated R.