Hallelujah. A warm, funny musical to tweak our heartstrings and put a silly smile on our faces, just in time for the holiday weekend. Begin Again, which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2013, will be opening in U.S. theatres Friday July 4th. It’s a good-natured film in all respects, though there is enough drama and heartbreak to keep it interesting and even compelling, simply because the characters are absolutely believable as real people in real life.
That assumes, of course, that music is accepted as not only part of life but a vital, absolutely necessary ingredient that flavors and enhances every other part. This is the premise and the feeling that comes through from John Carney, who wrote and directed the film, often shooting in and around some of New York City’s rougher corners.
Unlike too many musicals, the music and songs in Begin Again don’t force themselves on the characters or the plot; they spring from what’s going on in the streets of New York and the reality of today’s music industry. Rather than coming out of big-time big-name studios, this music is spontaneous, recorded at unlikely locations and without grandiose back-up or meticulous editing. The same is true of the film itself, shot in an almost unprecedented 24 days.
The plot: Mark Ruffalo is Dan, a disillusioned middle-aged record company executive, down on the music industry and life in general. Keira Knightley is Gretta, an English songwriter/singer who comes to New York with her about-to-be-rock star lover and partner Dave, played by Adam Levine of the band Maroon 5. Dave is ‘discovered’ and leaves Gretta in the dust; she’s marking time before fleeing back to England, but now she is ‘discovered’ by Dan as he’s boozing it up at an open-mike night.
Dan and Gretta find a strong common bond in their love of music and their core values; on screen the chemistry between Ruffalo and Knightley is undeniable, fascinating and endearing to watch. Though singing is not Knightley’s real forte she’s believable and appealing, and so is Ruffalo as the cynic with reserves of heart and soul.
Some critics have compared Begin Again unfavorably with Carney’s Once, his unexpected and unlikely international hit from 2007. Once took place in Dublin, and contained most of the same elements as the New York production. Maybe that old Irish magic doesn’t translate perfectly, but Begin Again gives it a darn good try.