Begin Again Review: A Charming Melody

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Writer-director John Carney’s star-studded musical drama doesn’t quite hit all the emotional beats it wants to, but it’s still a sweetly earnest underdog story.

In 2006, Carney wrote and directed a magnetic, heart-on-its-sleeve musical called Once, which went on to win an Oscar for its original song “Falling Slowly.” The tune, penned by the film’s stars Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová, is tender and touching in all the right ways, perfectly capturing the innocence and vulnerability of love that the story depicted.

Begin Again, Carney’s newest entry in the movie musical genre, features similarly styled music, this time under the care of New Radicals frontman Gregg Alexander. The songs are catchy, effervescent, and radio-friendly without being categorized as mainstream pop. Like Once, this film uses its music to tell a story. Unfortunately, sometimes the story is a little too glaring.

The narrative unfolds in an interesting nonlinear fashion, first opening on Gretta (Kiera Knightly) performing a new song at an open mic night in New York. Her performance is a little awkward, and the audience doesn’t seem to be too receptive except for a strange man applauding emphatically as she finishes. This man turns out to be Dan (Mark Ruffalo), an alcoholic, washed-up music producer who’s floundering at his label and failing at connecting with his estranged wife and daughter (Catherine Keener and Hailee Steinfeld respectively).

We then see all the events in Dan’s day that lead up to him entering the bar where Gretta performs. By this point he’s totally hammered, but is suddenly captivated by her sound. In one of the film’s most imaginative sequences, he starts to visualize backup arrangements for her music. We watch from his perspective as the instruments onstage behind Gretta come to life. A large point the film makes is that music has the power to bring people together, and make people take action. It’s here where we really see its magical potential.

A little later on, we’re privy to Gretta’s backstory, one that follows her journey to New York with her singer-songwriter boyfriend Dave (Maroon 5’s Adam Levine), who unfortunately becomes more obsessed with being a rockstar than with actually making music that matters. What follows is a strange friendship between Dan and Gretta. The two strike up a unique idea to produce an album recorded in various outdoor locations around the city.

This is where most of Alexander’s songs come in. The recording sessions provide a bit of lighthearted fun, as well as on opportunity for pathos during various characters’ personal conflicts. In one touching scene, Gretta and her band record on a rooftop near the Empire State Building. This allows for a bonding moment between Dan and his daughter, who turns out to be an ace guitar player. It’s simple and authentic moments like these that really sell the film’s music-positive message.

The film falls flat, however, when it lays its motives too clearly on the table. Much of the plot deals with the changing nature of the music industry, how labels screw new artists out of all their money, and how popular singers only care about their next big hit. The whole concept felt a little too cliché, like something you would see in a Disney Channel movie about a young star trying to break away from the Top 40 mold…by making slightly off-kilter Top 40 songs.  At one point, Gretta tells Dave that his remixed rendition of a song they wrote together has been “lost in the production.” That’s often how Carney’s story feels; a fervent idea lost in a production of big stars and cookie-cutter themes.

Still, those big stars are certainly something to behold. Knightly is absolutely radiant as Gretta, making her feel lovable and genuine at the same time. Ruffalo uses his gruff charm to make Dan seem like an appealing loser, one that you want to see succeed again. Though he’s only in a few scenes, Levine makes the most of his time onscreen, perfectly playing a character who’s unaware of his obnoxious sentimentality. Additionally, fans of The Voice will be excited to see fellow judge Cee Lo Green as an established rapper named Troublegum. His character does lend himself to some of the film’s cheesiness, but Green seems to really enjoy himself in the role.

Begin Again might lack the more honest, raw nature of Once, but it’s far from an unenjoyable piece of work. The cast has great chemistry, and the songs seem tailor-made for your next Spotify playlist. Though it falters in its attempts to say something truly impactful about the state of music today, this is a film of unbridled optimism that will certainly leave you with uplifted spirits as the credits roll. Music can do that to you sometimes. Grade: B+

 

By Mike Papirmeister

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