Begin Again is a charming and emotionally charged film about complex relationships set to a pop-rock soundtrack. Starring Kiera Knightley and Mark Ruffalo, with strong supporting performances by Adam Levine (no, really), Catherine Keener, James Cordon and Hailee Steinfeld, this musical romantic drama balances romance, heartbreak, and hope, keeping the audience invested in its characters throughout the run of the film. Rather than clichéd rom-com antics, director John Carney explores the full range of human emotion.
The Irish director Carney came to the attention of American film audiences with his ground-breaking Once, released in 2007. The film was lauded by critics and movie-goers alike for its unique blend of music and traditional narrative structure. It was a musical, but cleverly disguised as a traditional romantic drama. Carney has used that formula to garner critical acclaim, but has yet to breakthrough with much commercial success.
Kiera Knightley anchors Begin Again, portraying Gretta, a singer-songwriter who works alongside her boyfriend, Dave, played by Adam Levine. The sweethearts-since-college move to NYC when Dave is picked up by a record label. Fame proves too tempting for Dave. He cheats on Gretta, and she leaves him. On her own, Knightley’s character channels her emotions into her music. A chance encounter with a down-on-his-luck music producer whose glory days are behind him leads to a musical collaboration that inspires both characters to explore their artistic boundaries. Mark Ruffalo is completely believable as the failing music producer, whose personal life also happens to be in disarray.
What Carney does so well in his films is to depict friendships between individuals of the opposite sex. There’s sexual tension, there’s flirtation, and there is always the question of “will they or won’t they?” But instead of giving the audience an easy, expected romantic pay off, Carney takes time to explore the importance of friendship. The bond between Dan and Gretta make a great team when it comes to making music, that doesn’t mean they should be lovers, too. And Dan has an estranged wife and daughter to consider. Carney’s films are special because of the multi-layered and believable relationships he develops on screen. They are multi-dimensional and completely engrossing for the viewer. The dialogue is natural, and the music perfectly frames the emotional impact of every scene.
While the music featured in Begin Again isn’t as strong as it was in Once, it’s still top-notch. Post-release, Carney complained about working with Knightley, a non-musician. He felt she couldn’t let go of her persona enough to truly become the character. But I think he may have projected some ill-will that he felt during shooting onto Knightley, because she’s completely believable in her role. In fact, the vulnerability of her performance is the glue that keeps the film together.
If you like what you see, check out Once and Sing Street. All three films are different in tone and tempo, but all three of Carney’s films incorporate music into a romantic setting in a unique and effective way.
Begin Again is currently streaming on Netflix