The mini-miracle of 2007’s hit musical “Once” was perhaps not so much of a surprise after all. Director John Carney took well-established Irish rock stars from the band The Frames (himself a former member) and made a simple movie without much of a plot and with much of Glen Hansard’s already classic music front and center.
But the fact that the movie had great music was really only half the battle. Everything about “Once” seemed cobbled together on the fly. Its look was a rough, documentary realism style and the dialogue was so bare bones it may as well have been improvised. And above all, the chemistry and romance between its two stars, Hansard and Marketa Irglova, felt genuine in both its journey and its outcome.
John Carney’s latest film “Begin Again” seems inspired by that makeshift attitude. It’s a story about working with what you’ve got and simply letting the magic happen. This time around, Carney is working with A-list actors, a pop-rock superstar and a budget that must dwarf what he had on “Once”. Yet when we see Keira Knightley singing into pantyhose with a wire inside or Maroon 5’s Adam Levine playing ping-pong, he’s found the magic again by making it feel real.
“Begin Again” is a charming, romantic musical that feels down-to-Earth and likeable because it starts with the music and gets at the magic later. The story isn’t indie or minimalist but always feels low-key and subtle. It’s the story of hapless record producer Dan (Mark Ruffalo) forced out of his company by his former partner (Mos Def). Carney spares us the specifics of his fall and tells the story backwards, filling in the narrative of his alcoholism, his breakup with his wife (Catherine Keener) and his distance from his daughter (Hailee Steinfeld) as it goes.
Dan stumbles into a bar and hears Gretta (Knightley) performing an acoustic song to a crowd too bored to listen, and in his drunken state he hears an arrangement all around her, the instruments literally coming to life on their own in a mini moment of fantasy. Gretta came to New York with her boyfriend Dave Kohl (Levine), but shortly after finally finding his own music stardom, he’s dumped her and moved on to a new rock star life.
The two of them decide that with no money and no studio space, they’ll record an album outdoors in the streets, parks, alleys and rooftops of New York. It frees up Carney’s visuals wonderfully, but it also feels plucky and charming enough to believe. Knightley’s singing voice is serviceable, but she’s perfect casting in the way she dons a no BS attitude and every-woman normalcy, melting into the endearing tomboy she hasn’t played since “Bend it Like Beckham.”
Knightley also anchors one of “Begin Again’s” best scenes. Gretta finds herself in a drunken zone and writes a touching break-up song on the fly, then performs it on her ex’s voicemail. The song and the scene are so simple and it happens in a whirl, but Carney’s documentary style combined with just a little polish and prettiness makes it an authentic movie gem.
“Begin Again” would be likeable enough with the songs and the performances alone, but it has the dignity to not make a parody out of Adam Levine’s character and bring him back just when he seemed to be written out of the movie altogether. It has the depth to provide a real backstory and redemption arc for Dan. And just like “Once” before it, it has the audacity to not end in an easy romantic cliché.
Cee Lo Green has a small cameo in the film in which he raps a line, “You’re only as strong as your next move.” Here’s hoping Carney’s next is as strong as this one.
3 ½ stars