[This is a re-post of my review from the 2013 Toronto International Film Festival. Begin Again opens this weekend in limited release.]
John Carney’s 2007 film Once was a surprising, touching musical about two musicians falling in love through their love of music. It felt authentic thanks to the naturalistic direction, and real-life musicians Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová, who made their acting debuts and fell in love in real life. That kind of chemistry is lightning in a bottle, but it provided Once with a unique and vibrant feel that expertly wove together a love of music and a love between two people. Carney’s new film, Begin Again, returns to similar territory but with a more polished approach that diminishes the charm in favor of a more Hollywood-friendly feel. The movie is still funny, good-natured, and most importantly, stresses the joy of sharing music with others. It’s even a little acerbic in its tone towards the music business, but Carney’s film is guilty of the some of the same critiques regarding watered-down entertainment.
Greta (Keira Knightley) and Dan (Mark Ruffalo) are at their personal nadirs when they meet by chance during an open mic night at a New York bar. Greta’s boyfriend Dave (Adam Levine) has gone on to become a big rock star sell-out and cheated on her. Dan is an A&R executive and bitter drunk who has become disgusted with the direction his music company is headed, and he’s also become estranged from his teenage daughter Violet (Hailee Steinfeld). When Greta, who considers herself a songwriter more than a singer, performs one of her songs at the open mic night, Dan hears it and sees a chance to make her a top artist. Their collaboration eventually rebuilds their self-esteem, and offers them a chance at mending their broken relationships as they put together a demo to get Greta a recording contract.
Begin Again shares Once’s plot insofar as two people build a connection by trying to make sweet music together. But where Once was primarily focused on the relationship between two people falling in love, the relationship between Greta and Dan is meant to be inclusive. Dan comes up with the idea that Greta and a ragtag band of other musicians should record all their music on the streets of New York to give the songs a unique feel. This ties in nicely with Greta growing out of her shell by discovering she didn’t need to be a songwriter in Dave’s shadow, and her voice is better than his, especially as his voice is increasingly watered down by the demands of the professional music business.
I’ll admit I have no taste in music, but Begin Again does a great job differentiating good tunes from bad ones. When Dan is listening to CDs in his car with music from potential clients, we can hear the manufactured, generic sound that would make anyone want to toss those CDs out the window. And while Greta’s songs aren’t as good as the music from Once, we understand that they have a personal touch that gets surgically removed from Top 40 singles. The criticism comes in most clear when we hear the development of Dave’s music from something authentic to something that is wholly product and devoid of emotion.
However, like Dave, Begin Again is also playing it safe to some extent. At one point, Greta and Dan agree that a person’s playlist says a lot about that person. They decide to use Dan’s headphone splitter and listen to Greta’s iPod as they walk around New York City. These are two people who are deeply versed in music, and those people tend to like obscure material, which is part of the joy of sharing music that’s supposed to be one of the themes of the movie. But when Greta and Dan are walking around, they’re listening to famous classic tunes we’ve heard countless times before. You can tell a lot about a person by the music they listen to, and you can also tell a lot about the film by the music it puts on the soundtrack.
That safe, clean feel permeates the entire feature into something that is nice but not particularly rewarding. There’s a good message at the center of the picture, and the cast is a lot of fun, especially Ruffalo. But while the movie may proclaim the importance of finding a unique voice and sharing it with the world, the film feels akin to an alternative indie that lands on the Top 40. Its intentions are good, but part of its appeal is how it’s designed to reach the widest audience possible rather than convey something personal. Begin Again has a heart, but it has trouble finding the right place to put it.