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.