Directed By John Carney
Starring Mark Ruffalo, Keira Knightley, Adam Levine, James Corden and Hailee Steinfeld
Down-and-out talent scout/producer Dan (Mark Ruffalo) is fresh from being fired from the music label he founded and deep into an all-day bender. He stumbles into a dive bar on open mic night and is smitten by the soulful, acoustic crooning of singer-songwriter Gretta (Keira Knightley), who’s reeling from her own rejection after being dumped by popstar boyfriend Dave (Maroon 5 frontman Adam Levine.) Together, the two start a plan to record Gwen’s first album guerrilla-style on the streets New York with the sounds of the city as a backdrop – a creative project that starts to rekindle the downtrodden pair’s love of life and music.
From a glance at the poster and a skim of the synopsis, Begin Again might look like another ten-a-penny sappy romance, but despite the outside appearances, John Carney’s film takes great strides to avoid stepping in the mire of familiar schmaltz. It sees its surprisingly fleshed out leads inspiring each other to follow their own paths rather than take the obvious, trite ‘girl gets dumped, girl meets The Hulk, girl finds happiness in her new guy and lives happily ever after’ rom-com route. Like the stripped-down music project at the heart of the film, Begin Again excels in its simpler moments and the fantastic cast is a massive part of why that works so well. Ruffalo’s all endearing, scruffy charm and Knightley’s radiantly lovely, but their characters’ romance is almost entirely an unspoken, subtextual one and the duo portray that wonderfully with just meaningful glances and dynamite chemistry.
It’s a less-is-more approach to performance that reverberates through the film: A standout scene that shows Gretta discovering her boyfriend’s infidelity while the two listen to his new song is a character revelation all hinged on silent acting – subtle facial gestures of realization and avoided eye contact – and Knightley and Levine sell it beautifully. The cast is perfect, almost effortlessly breathing layered life into some characters that would be nothing but genre archetypes on paper. And yep, even Adam Levine’s really good in his first major acting role, and not just because he’s playing a pretentious popstar extension of himself. Usually hit-or-miss comedian James Corden magics up a fair few scene-stealing laughs from the movie’s improv atmosphere as Gretta’s comic relief best buddy. Hailee Steinfeld brings a lot of presence as Dan’s estranged daughter (even if she is repeating the exact same role she just played in Three Days to Kill) and Yasiin Bey (aka Mos Def) injects a naturally likable charisma to a character that’d be a one-note label exec villain in any other movie.
The film’s core ‘big label production is the soul-stripping enemy of pure, unfiltered music’ ideals are a little undone by the song selection the film cooks up for Gretta. Knightley has a lovely voice, but the soft-and-simple acoustic tracks her character sings are all indistinguishable from each other, whereas you can at least tell the catchier, arena-friendly pop ballads of her sellout ex-boyfriend apart. The palpable joy of music comes through far better elsewhere, though. One of the most memorable scenes has Ruffalo’s boozy character watching Gretta meekly perform in public. Through his point-of-view, we see his producer instincts kick in as he starts to assemble an imaginary arrangement for the track: The stage’s unmanned drums spring to live, the violin perks up and the piano starts to play by itself as the song comes to life. Later, Dan and Gretta explore the city together, the songs they listen to on a shared iPod providing the soundtrack for their New York adventure. Whether you’re spending time with those incredibly likeable characters or sharing in the capering fun as they piece together their guerrilla album, the film’s brimming with infectious, smile-inducing energy even when the songs themselves aren’t all that memorable.
Ultimately, everything’s a little predictable, with every character’s trajectory landing them in exactly the right place. But even so, Begin Again earns major points for drawing its main characters well enough that you’ll feel invested in their happiness and for giving them arcs that successfully avoid rom-com tropes. It’s a romantic movie that’s less about the ‘will they/won’t they?’ of its dreamy leads and more about their shared love of music. The cliché-dodging result is an infectiously sweet feel-good film that hits a tonne of high notes.
The film looks and sounds fantastic on Blu-ray, but the special features aren’t staggeringly impressive:
The twentysomething minute making of feature covers the usual surface-level interview stuff you’d expect and isn’t tremendously interesting. The music videos are nice inclusions though if you’re itching to listen to the songs again right after the credits roll.
Begin Again is out on Blu-ray and DVD in the UK from 10th November 2014.
Click here to order the Blu-ray from Amazon.co.uk.