Once in a while a little indie movie with an unknown cast will make a big splash, if it has charm to spare. That happened in 2006 with Once: a tuneful fable about buskers falling in love in Dublin that put Irish director John Carney on the map, won a Best Original Song Oscar and spawned a successful Broadway musical. Now Carney’s back, trying to make the magic happen again – but with bankable stars this time – and just about succeeds. Try to imagine the Coen brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis updated to contemporary New York City, with characters who are actually mostly likable and without anybody getting beaten up (that is to say, without the Coen brothers), and you’ll get a rough picture of Carney’s latest confection, Begin Again.
As in Once, the plot involves two people drawn together by a mutual love of music, attracted to each other and wondering what to do about that when there are other commitments involved. Our story begins with those people separately having a bad day: A British singer/songwriter named Gretta (Keira Knightley), who came to live in New York with her longtime boyfriend and performing collaborator Dave (Adam Levine) when he landed a big record contract, has just found out that success has gone to Dave’s head in a very bad way. Not only has he gone commercial (with her material), but he’s also cheating on her with a pretty music executive.
Meanwhile, a visionary, once-successful A & R man named Dan (Mark Ruffalo) gets canned by his business partner Saul (Mos Def) from the record company that he founded himself, because none of the acts that he has signed in the past seven years has caught fire. The whole point of creating the new label – pointedly named Distressed Records – in the first place had been to buck the system by promoting worthy indie performers without the usual recording industry glitz and glam; but some of the rappers discovered by Dan in years past ended up making so much money that Saul has developed a taste for success and essentially sold out.
Dan is striking out on the home front as well, estranged from his wife Miriam (Catherine Keener) and clueless about what’s really going on inside the head of his teenage daughter Violet (Hailee Steinfeld). A row ensues when Dan, who has been drinking all day, drops Violet off at her mother’s house, and so off he goes in search of more alcohol in spite of having no money left on his person. By the time he wanders into the little music club where Gretta has been dragged by an old busker pal chance-met on the street in an effort to cheer her up, Dan is pretty well soused.
But then Gretta’s friend Steve (James Corden) finishes his set and insists that she come up onstage and sing just one of her original songs. She’s feeling awful and her performance is low-key. And so the crowd tunes out – all but one. Dan, you see, has a special gift: a sort of synesthesia in which he can immediately identify the other instruments in the perfect arrangement for a song by a performer who meets his standards of authenticity (typified by Randy Newman: the first subject on which Dan and Gretta can agree once they get to talking). In a scene that’s kind of cheesy/brilliant, we see onscreen what Dan is drunkenly hearing in his head while Gretta sings, as phantom instruments get up and start playing themselves.
Suddenly Dan has something to live for again, and immediately after her number he collars Gretta and begs her to record for him. She just as quickly reveals herself to be artistically uncompromising, wary of commercialization (especially after what it just did to her love life), and firmly puts off this wild-eyed, wild-haired stranger with bourbon breath. But she also notices that he has really heard her, and before the night is over, decides not to flee the Big Apple and head straight home to England as planned.
As we in the Hudson Valley already know about our anti-fracking-activist-hero Catskills neighbor, Mark Ruffalo is just naturally a scruffy ball of adorableness, and any character that he plays is going to be hard to resist once he turns on the charm – even if that character starts out the movie as a drunken loser. When Saul fails to hear in Gretta’s demo what Dan hears, Dan persuades her to work with him to record a gritty full album en pleine air all over the City, ambient traffic noise and all. And so, as in so many memorable romantic comedies over many decades, New York City in all its diverse glory becomes one of the stars of the movie.
Gradually these two bond over their shared artistic vision, wandering the City late at night sharing playlists with one CD-player and two sets of headphones on a splitter. There’s a wonderful scene where Gretta and Dan are in a disco, gleefully dancing to a different drummer from everyone else in the club. And in the process, healing happens for both; Dan starts to dry out; other folks get drawn in and sometimes changed for the better. Surly young Violet turns out to play a meaner electric guitar than anyone would have guessed; errant Dave owns up to his shallowness and acknowledges his former partner’s superior songwriting gifts; Miriam begins to remember what she saw in Dan long years back.
Full of catchy-but-not-too-commercial tunes by Gregg Alexander of the New Radicals, the soundtrack for Begin Again is destined to be a hot item this summer. The dialogue is well-written, the almost-love story is sweet and wistful without becoming saccharine and the cast is uniformly fine – right down to rapper CeeLo Green as one of Dan’s former discoveries who owes him a solid and delivers when it’s most needed. In sum, the film is well-worth catching: an airy summertime treat for the eyes, ears and heartstrings.
To read Frances Marion Platt’s previous movie reviews & other film-related pieces, visit our Almanac Weekly website at HudsonValleyAlmanacWeekly.com and click on the “film” tab.