Begin Again

Monday 22 September 2014
FOLLOWING up on his acclaimed debut Once, writer and director John Carney has made a sweet film with heart and soul, ably abetted by a very good cast. With this effort, Carney has strongly monopolised the market on ‘musicals (that are not really musicals)’.

Gretta (Keira Knightley) is invited up onto the stage at a live gig to play one of her songs, a pleasant-enough acoustic tune. At its conclusion, an audience member is picked out by the camera—an enraptured (and fairly intoxicated) Dan (Mark Ruffalo). Through flashbacks, we learn that he has had
the worst day imaginable—chewed up by his estranged daughter and fired from the record company he co-founded, he has spent some time contemplating suicide.

Another flashback delivers Gretta’s equally awful preamble—finding out her music writing partner and boyfriend Dave (Adam Levine) wants to split up after he makes it big, and moving in with her musician friend Steve (James Corden), who takes her out to the gig to fight off her misery.

Though the set-up sounds perfect for romance, Begin Again is instead about a tight platonic friendship which could not come at a better time for its participants. Both Knightley and Ruffalo are formidable talents, and they have an easy chemistry that grounds their bond.

As Dan, Ruffalo is a likable schlub, who masks his pain at his marriage troubles first with alcohol, then with burying himself in Gretta’s music. One of his friends notes that with Dan having a bad few months, ‘people lose sight of who he is’, and watching his redemption is kind of charming for the audience.

Despite the obvious and occasionally off-putting auto-tuning of her vocals, Keira Knightley is sweet and damaged as Gretta, and the subplot with her ex-boyfriend gives her good material to engage with. Knightley also has a very natural interaction with the talented young actress Hailee Steinfeld, who plays Dan’s daughter. When Dan begins helping Gretta record an album played all over New York, you genuinely want them to succeed, because they come across as good people who have had a rough time. They are due for a win.

The outdoor performances (under bridges, in rowboats and so on) are consistently engaging, despite effectively being music videos. I found myself consciously curtailing an urge to applaud following the rooftop ditty featuring Dan’s daughter on guitar.

The songs in the film were written by a talented bunch led by Gregg Alexander, and are good throughout the film. Their tone often reflects the themes of the preceding scenes, and they take on a deeper resonance, particularly the song with which Knightley opens the film.

When Dave re-enters the picture as a repentant man who realises what he has lost, Carney’s script may be a tad too predictable and neat. However, its warmth and gentle humour are winning, the conclusion to the piece is fitting, and professional musician (as the lead singer of band Maroon 5) Adam Levine’s faults as an actor fade away when his wonderful singing is utilised to moving effect.

Callum Ryan is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.

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