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MOVIES: Begin Again – Beautiful music can’t save this film – Review

Begin Again, the second feature film from Once writer/director John Carney, falls short (very short, in some respects) of being a great movie, but is still a satisfying film for music lovers and romantics. Once, which became one of the most loved films of 2006, was a beautiful cinematic achievement because of the simplicity and earnestness of Carney’s story. With Begin Again, Carney seems to stretch himself and his story beyond the necessary limits in order to appeal to a wider audience. The result is a muddled, uneven experience with moments of beauty hidden within a mediocre film.

The film (which originally had the much better title Can A Song Save Your Life?) focuses on two lost souls on opposite ends of the creative process. Greta (Keira Knightley) is a songwriter/sometimes singer whose boyfriend, Dave (Adam Levine), has just found pop star success after his first record becomes an unexpected hit. Greta and their long history together are jettisoned as Dave’s career takes off, leaving her alone and forced to crash on a friend’s couch until she can reschedule her flight back to the UK.

Dan (Mark Ruffalo) is a formerly great music executive whose past successes give him clout in the industry, but his drinking and lack of recent luck finding talent is making any previous good will almost nonexistent. During a night of heavy drinking, Dan stumbles into a small club where Greta is performing a song she has written. Dan hears the makings of a surefire hit and pleads with Greta to let him produce her record. Greta is understandably apprehensive, but when Dan pitches his very unusual idea for how they should record the album – outdoors in various locations around NYC – she is intrigued and swayed by his passion. With a skeleton crew, Dan and Greta set to work creating an album which may give them both a second shot at success.

Unsurprisingly, the music in Begin Again is excellent. Once had possibly the best soundtrack of the last ten years and Begin Again may just be in the running to unseat it. Knightley performs all of the songs herself and her voice is soft but strong, perfectly capturing Greta’s very principled and unshakeable demeanor. For some unknown reason, though, Carney has chosen to pre-record all of Knightley’s songs which is completely antithetical to the spirit of the story. Greta is choosing to record outside, welcoming whatever noise or distraction is thrown her way. Knightley should have done the same, the way the stars of Once more often than not sang live. This very crucial misstep on Carney’s part is possibly the most damaging in the film.

Ruffalo and Knightley give terrific performances, especially when they are the only two in a scene. Ruffalo is so much more dynamic and effusive than Knightley which works well with her relaxed, naturalistic choices. Ruffalo is Robin Williams to Knightley’s Billy Crystal. The work by both actors deserves special recognition as both are far more nuanced and layered than typically scene in romantic comedies.

The rest of the film comes off as another filmmaker trying to re-create Once but with a much larger budget. The guerilla filmmaking style of Once was refreshing and effective yet Carney seems cautious to not try the same thing that worked so well before. Instead, he has made a movie about other artists making a project guerilla-style. The irony couldn’t have been lost on him. If, on the other hand, it was intentional, Carney needed very much to revise his script and the message he was trying to send.

Begin Again is entertaining and the music is phenomenal. Sadly, the film itself is subpar but has enough strong performances to warrant seeing it at least once.

Grade: C+

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