People move to New York City to make a fresh start, to fetch success through hope and grit—not to wither away, alone and adrift.
But adrift and alone is how English singer-songwriter Gretta finds herself in John Carney’s “Begin Again,” an uplifting, open-hearted film about the music industry’s ability to ruin people, and music’s power to redeem them.
Gretta (Keira Knightley) comes to New York because rocker boyfriend Dave (Adam Levine) has made it to the big-time—one of his songs was selected for a movie and he just got signed by a fancy record label. Now the fangirls are swarming and his concerts are packed.
But fame makes Dave oblivious to his own callousness. He cheats. Gretta is jilted, heartbroken, with only one song left—a melancholic tune about lunging in front of an oncoming train.
Meanwhile, A&R man Dan (Mark Ruffalo) just got fired from his own record label. On top of that, he’s been turned out of his own house by an unfaithful wife. Now he’s slumming in a Chinatown rat hole and scraping around for a new singer to represent. With his world crumbling around him, Dan spends his days going from bottle to flask and back.
Downing an nth beer at the nth bar, he hears Gretta strumming out her piteous song at the mic. Despite the deep booze haze, her singing awakens something in him.
His sticks his drunk, greasy face in hers and insists on producing an album with her. His budget of zero dollars isn’t inspiring. But with nothing else to lose, Gretta agrees. So begins a whirlwind of improvised recording sessions in the New Yorkiest of New York City locales: subway platforms, Central Park, the Lower East Side—and a bout of mutual discovery that will leave the two unsure how to proceed.
Where are the personal boundaries between two people who are each other’s last hope? To create music that comes from the heart, the only kind Gretta and Dan agree is worth producing, demands complete trust and openness.
They learn about each others’ painful pasts; the healing begins. It feels a lot like love. But Dan’s a married man, and hopes to be reconciled with his wife and wayward teenage daughter Violet (Hailee Steinfeld). Gretta still loves Dave. She remembers their good times through home videos.
“Lost Stars” was Gretta and Dave’s song, her gift to him for Christmas. Its emotions are real, the sound catchy, the lyrics mediocre—exactly the sort of song that goes mainstream. And mainstream is where Dave takes it, much to Gretta’s disappointment.
“It sounds like stadium pop,” she complains when he plays the record for her.
“I wanted to turn it into a hit.”
“But you don’t want to lose the song in the production.”
The music industry is the only real bad-guy in this movie; record labels aren’t interested in fostering talent, only manufacturing stars like Dave. It’s a flat caricature of an entire industry, but makes a good foil for free-thinking artists like Dan and Gretta.
John Carney directed “Once,” the 2006 film about two poor Irish musicians who discover their budding love through song. In “Begin Again,” he’s pulled his gift in crafting movies about music but aren’t musicals, dropped folk for pop, got rid of the wool sweaters, and made it truly New York.
Everyone, it seemed, stepped out of their comfort zones for this film. Levine acts for the first time. James Corden, who plays Gretta’s goofy friend from England, said he studied very hard to look like a musician. Both Knightley and Steinfeld learned guitar for their roles. The genuine vulnerability of actors singing and singers acting comes through.
So can Keira sing? Can Adam act?
Knightley can sing in the way that actors with untrained voices sing—with lots of heart despite a limited range. It is stirring to watch her sing Gretta’s pain, but to only hear it, you’d find some expression lacking. Her voice is delicate and sounds better alone at a mic than buried beneath bass. The sound engineers manage okay at maintaining this balance.
Levine on the other hand, plays the part of a pop star, which he is easy enough for Maroon 5’s lead singer. Acting was the new challenge. His lines sometimes feel forced, which is either bad acting or beginner’s luck. Either way, it conveniently makes his character seem disingenuous, even when he’s trying to patch things up with Gretta.
You want Gretta and Dave to fail as a couple—they do. You want Gretta and Dan to fall in love. They do—and they don’t. There isn’t a word in the English language for the relationship Gretta and Dan have. “Platonic” would be accurate but incomplete.
The movie’s one failing is that the highs are plenty high but the lows could be lower. Almost as soon as tension arises between Gretta and Dan or Dave, it is quickly resolved or diverted. You almost want to linger, dig in, and indulge in the impossibility of a relationship with either man. But feeling bad is rarely a music movie’s forte.
Neither is believability. The absolute ease of starting Gretta’s second career is too good, too obstacle-free, to be true. But then again, maybe if you have the right sort of partnership, it can be that simple to begin again.
Director: John Carney
Starring: Keira Knightley, Mark Ruffalo, Adam Levine, Hailee Steinfeld, James Corden, Catherine Keener
Run Time: 1 hour, 54 minutes
Release Date: June 27
3.5 stars out of 5