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Carney's Lightning Strikes Twice With Begin Again

Updated on April 5, 2015

A record executive has just lost his job. A transplanted English woman with singing and songwriting skill performs reluctantly for a small crowd. He is there to hear her song in Begin Again. Keira Knightley stars as Gretta James, a songwriter who used to be involved with fellow singer Dave Kohl (Adam Levine). He left Greta when his singing star rose. Former indie record executive Dan Mulligan (Mark Ruffalo) listens to the performance of Gretta, and instantly wonders how good the song might sound with the right instrumental backing. After her performance, Dan works very hard at charming Gretta. Eventually, he convinces her to work with him so she can get the kind of sound she'd like to have.

Together, Gretta and Dan record in a way most artists wouldn't dream of doing. They don't book a studio or studio musicians. Instead, they enlist Gretta's musician friend, Steve (James Corden), who's also a English immigrant, for technical and musical assistance. Dan also puts out a call to other local musicians for the project, which gets them the makings of a band. He also works his connections in the industry when he pays a visit to one of his singing discoveries, an artist who goes by the name of Troublegum (CeeLo Green). That visit nets him a couple of players that Troublegum pays to work with Gretta and Dan. Dan works with his old partner at Distressed Records, Saul Byron (Yasiin Bey, the artist formerly known as Mos Def), to see if he'll sign Gretta. The time away from not listening to demos and going to work also helps to rebuild the bonds between Dan and his estranged wife, Miriam (Catherine Keener), and his virtually estranged daughter, Violet (Hailee Steinfeld), whose hobbies include guitar.

Begin Again, as was the case for writer-director John Carney's other well-known music movie, Once, takes a look at the struggles for success in the music business. Dan and Saul have seen Distressed grow from a small label to a larger, more successful, company. Success, however, didn't keep coming for Dan. The music he heard lacked almost any fresh spin, and the artists he'd championed had all flopped. His drinking didn't help Dan accomplish much, save for getting divorced, and then fired. Seeing and hearing Gretta, though, reminded why Dan had dedicated his life to music. Their project wasn't the same old same old, and didn't cost the kind of money a real studio would. This work also gives Dan time to appreciate the family who seemed more of a burden than anything else. Begin Again may be a bit more predictable than Once, and shares story elements with the older movie, but it celebrates good music, good musicians, and good people who want to make their songs heard. Gregg Alexander gets key songwriting credit, but he gets a lot of help, including his usual collaborator, Danielle Brisebois (whom some might remember from her acting on Archie Bunker's Place). Carney and Green also have a small hand in the songs, as does Once star Glen Hansard, whose song Like A Fool is one of my favorites in the film.

The movie benefits from a great ensemble cast as well. Ruffalo shows viewers a man doing his best thinking as his career heads toward its nadir. When he listens to Gretta's song, he feels his creative spark. Gretta has ideas of her own that helps both realize they can make their own kind of music. Dan also starts to build a family through this project. Knightley shows confidence in her musical vision and singing skill as Gretta, an artist blindsided by a cheating man who took a song she'd written and done it in a way that displeased her. While I like Levine's rendition of Lost Stars, I prefer the intimacy of Knightley's take. Gretta may have needed encouragement to showcase her singing, but Dan, Steve, and others show how much they'll do for her, and returns their kindness with great singing and great musical instincts. Knightley's singing voice sounds like Susanna Hoffs - and that's not a bad thing. Steinfeld impresses as Violet, a teen who makes the most of her chance to not only be a part of her dad's life, but to show her skills as a musician. Keener, Bey, and Corden also provide fine support in limited screen time. Levine and Green, the cast members who really make a living in music, also show they're effective actors - even though both play singers here.

In the music world, some become stars, even though many stars find that success fleeting. Others, though, just want to make music without the polish of a professional studio and enjoy modest success. Two people who see firsthand what success can do become partners in a very uncorporate venture in Begin Again. They make their studio anywhere they want (unless the cops see them), and anyone with interest and talent can contribute to their little band. Dan and Gretta do not wish to lose control over the finished product they wish to release. Together, they call the shots and keep the music under their control. Their work follows the lead of a lot of artists, who ply their craft without ever gaining a huge notice. The performers in Begin Again don't really care about selling out any sort of big venue or releasing an album that instantly goes platinum. Their contentment lies in getting an audience on their own terms and not selling out for a bigger bank account.

On a scale of one to four stars, I give Begin Again 3.5 stars. Not exactly Once...again.


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