Although he intentionally waited several years after the release of his critically acclaimed Sundance Film Festival Audience Award-winning 2006 effort Once in an effort to avoid being labelled the ‘music guy’, there is no escaping the fact that it is another music driven narrative in Begin Again that has put Irish writer/director John Carney firmly back in the spotlight. Of course, the lack of success of his in-between efforts – wacky comedy Zonad and supernatural drama The Rafters – outside of his home territory certainly hasn’t helped Carney in his efforts to avoid being pigeon-holed. Carney’s return to the modern musical genre has resulted in a film that, whilst a romantic comedy of sorts and a celebration of the power of music, is also a far-from-subtle attack on the contemporary music industry. Featuring Mark Ruffalo as Dan, a disillusioned and dishevelled record label executive, the film skewers the industry and presents most of those working within it – Dan notwithstanding of course – as slaves to the almighty dollar who privilege style and image over substance and talent.
For Dan, excessive alcohol consumption, tardiness and a general disdain for an industry in which he was once an influential and inspirational figure has resulted in him being banished from his own company – Distressed Records – a label he founded with partner Saul (Mos Def) some 20-odd years before. Drowning his sorrows in a bar, Dan stumbles across Gretta (Keira Knightley) a British songwriter freshly separated from her on-the-verge-of-success musician boyfriend Dave (Maroon 5’s Adam Levine). Whilst both Dan and Gretta share a cynicism about the state of the music industry, he recognises her talents as a singer and songwriter and sees her as a potential shot at redemption. However, Gretta certainly doesn’t share Dan’s affirmation of her talents and certainly has no interest in releasing any of her music, let alone securing a record deal. Of course, as they must if we are going to have a story, things change and the pair join forces in an effort to make – or remake in Dan’s case – their mark; all the while refusing to conform to the conventions that often only serve to constrain creativity. As we have come to expect, Dan’s personal and professional disintegration has also left him estranged from his wife and daughter and this new project serves as an opportunity to reconnect with both.
In the first part of the film, Ruffalo is completely over-the-top in his portrayal of Dan, presenting him as an utterly unlikeable caricature, somebody for whom it is difficult to muster any sympathy. To his credit though, Ruffalo somehow turns it around and by the end of the film you are totally enamoured by his character and the talent, drive and charm that has been buried beneath layers of self-loathing. The under-rated Knightley is charming and naturalistic as Gretta, while Levine is effective enough as the dastardly Dave. As ex-wife Miriam, the always reliable Catherine Keener is equal parts admiration, frustration and sympathy for Dan, while Hailee Steinfeld is teenage daughter Violet, struggling in her search for identity and her own place in the world. James Corden (One Chance) and CeeLo Green bring a sense of fun to the piece as musician friends of Gretta and Dave respectively, albeit at opposite ends of the success spectrum. Unlike Dan, Mos Def’s Saul is willing to accept and embrace change; a not altogether unreasonable man who is prepared to put the company’s interests ahead of his own. Rob Morrow (Quiz Show and TV’s Northern Exposure), meanwhile, makes a brief appearance as a music executive who is an incarnation of everything that is wrong with the industry today.
The songs are fabulous and there is every chance that Begin Again could emulate the success of Once in the Best Original Song category at the Academy Awards with Lost Stars (penned by Gregg Alexander, Danielle Brisebois, Nick Lashley and Nick Southwood) driving so much of the story. The glorious New York locations are a visual feast and also play a pivotal role in the creative process for Dan, Gretta and the merry band of musicians who sign up for their somewhat radical approach to recording. There are plenty of nice moments, such as when a classically trained cellist roped into the group is more than willing to accept a percentage of profits instead of upfront payment “as long as it’s not Vivaldi.” With musings on how music can invest banal moments with deep meaning and a nod to magic realism, Begin Again is a charming film that is fun and funky despite its flaws.