If you, like writer/director John Carney, believe in the power of music, it is kind of amazing what you can get away with.
Music can paper over melodrama, fill the cracks in clichés and make even the oldest ideas seem fresh and new. There’s something infectious about spending two hours with people who totally buy into that idea.
To quote Willy Wonka (who was quoting Arthur O’Shaughnessy, but whatever), “We are the music makers, and we are the dreamers of dreams.”
“Begin Again” is a love letter to those dreamers and music makers as it chronicles the story of two people who wind up saving themselves and each other thanks to a chance encounter.
The movie begins with that fortuitous meet-up at a bar between a heartbroken songwriter and a down-on-his-luck record executive.
The movie then jumps backwards, showing us the circumstances that led our two central characters to arrive at such a pivotal junction in their lives.
Mark Ruffalo plays Dan, the co-founder of a record label who clearly hasn’t signed a successful artist in a long time. He drinks too much, his ex-wife Miriam (Catherine Keener) and teenaged daughter Violet (Hailee Steinfeld) think he’s pathetic at best and he’s fairly apathetic to life in general.
When his business partner Saul (the always awesome Mos Def) has enough and kicks him to the curb, Dan goes on a bender and finds himself at an open-mic night when he sees Greta (Keira Knightley) performing to a largely indifferent audience.
In what is a particularly inspired scene, Dan perks up and begins to envision unattended instruments springing to life behind Greta to accompany her stark guitar and vocals, resulting in a fully realized song.
He offers to sign Greta on the spot, but seeing how he is drunk and technically doesn’t have to power to sign anyone, she understandably hesitates. We are then shown her backstory, which begins a few months earlier when she arrived in New York City with her songwriting partner and boyfriend Dave (pop star Adam Levine in his major-acting debut).
Dave had been plucked from obscurity and given a massive recording deal thanks in large part to Greta’s inspiration. Unfortunately, Greta gets lost in the wake of his rocket ship to fame and fortune, and their relationship predictably disintegrates.
She is about to leave New York for good when her friend Steve (James Corden) drags her to one last open-mic night.
As Dan and Greta begin to work together, they each begin to find the sense of purpose they had lost as the process of artistic creation slowly sparks them back to life.
Writer/director Carney has found great success playing in this sandbox before with the wonderful Irish-folk-infused fable “Once.”
Here, with a stacked and completely invested cast, Carney pulls it off again with some solid songs that are performed both predictably (Levine) and surprisingly (Knightley) well.
What ultimately saves this movie from drifting too far off the rails and becoming either too sappy or too pretentious are the performances by Ruffalo and Knightley.
Each cuts right to the human core of these stock characters and makes you believe these are people you could easily bump into on the subway during your next trip to NYC.
There has to be a little bit of magic in “Begin Again;” how else can I explain getting sucked into a movie I’ve seen a thousand times before? Maybe that makes me a sucker or a sap, but I like to think it just means I’m always going to root for those music makers and dreamers of dreams.
“Begin Again” is rated R for language.