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Movie Review: “Begin Again”

Movie Review: “Begin Again”
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Having struck gold with 2006’s “Once”, writer/director John Carney tries again to capture cinematic lightning in a bottle. The result is a mixed bag that despite its good intentions and indie spirit, doesn’t quite resonate with the same energy and loose style.

“Once” was a true independent film. Shot for virtually no budget, with unknown actors on the streets of his home town Dublin, Carney’s earnest musical love story hit home with critics, earning kudos and awards….and presumably the financing for his next project.

After seeing “Once” make it to Broadway, Carney has written another heart-felt tale about struggling musicians plying their wares on the streets of a bustling city. This time it’s New York and the singer/songwriter in question is played by mega-movie star Keira Knightley.  It’s a little harder to put aside our preconceived notions about the actress and buy her as Greta, the neglected girlfriend of an up-and-coming rock star played with authentic bluster by Adam Levine. When Dave (Levine) is shunted off to L.A. on a press tour with sycophantic handlers, Greta is left staring at her plane ticket home to London the following morning.

That night she’s dragged to an open mic night by her boozy bestie Steve (James Corden) where she is encouraged to take the stage and sing a mournful ditty. Quite honestly, it sounded so incredibly average to me that I had a hard time suspending disbelief for the rest of the movie. But something about Greta’s voice, looks and stage charisma awakens the drunken, once attuned ears of the former record label head Dan played with rumpled precision by Mark Ruffalo.

Convincing Greta to stay in town, he rustles up some old friends and with the aplomb of an ex-con getting the gang back together for one last job, he takes it to the streets to record an album with Greta providing vocals.

With a shabby chic-ness and fierce determination, Carney crafts his film as the musicians craft their guerilla recordings.  There’s a real feel of New York as Knightley and her co-stars stand on street corners or in back-lots and sing their hearts out. Admirably Knightley seems free of makeup, airs or accent….her performance is natural and unforced. Ruffalo is as appealing as ever despite being saddled with a side-story to do with his estranged wife (Catherine Keener) and teenage daughter (Hailee Steinfeld). He also has a contentious relationship with his former partner at the record label Saul (Mos Def) and the film toys with grander notions of corporate might and selling out.

With real indie chutzpah, Carney chooses not to throw his two stars into bed together. It’s a welcome relief, further complicating Hollywood’s ability to market this film. Is it a love story? A musical? An indictment of the music industry? Levine does make a second appearance towards the end, but Carney subverts expectations, eschewing the Hollywood ending.

I wish the music (by Gregg Alexander) had been as dynamic and memorable as the songs in “Once”….there are no hummers that stuck in my head. But overlooking the audio shortcomings, this is an easy-listening oasis in a summer desert of cacophony. “Begin Again” (which used to be called “Can a Song save your Life?”) is a precocious outlier…a charming little film that could.


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