Note: this review will be featured on the Phoenix Film Festival’s website.
Begin Again celebrates music unlike any modern film I’ve seen, insisting that it has the ability to move people more so than any other craft. How ironic then that it’s presented as a film. The film’s original title, Can a Song Save Your Life?, captures the essence of the story more directly, but both titles have similarly affecting meanings. They both refer to the film’s central character, Dan (Mark Ruffalo), a disgraced music-business executive that created his own record label back in the day with popular artists under his wing. But the music industry is changing and his way of doing things was pushed to the side. That might be because of the work itself, yet it seems to lie more within his raging alcoholism and familial issues. His daughter, Violet (Hailee Steinfeld), dresses like she needs a father to tell her what’s not acceptable while his ex-wife, Miriam (Catherine Keener), raises her alone. Dan’s life is in ruins and he’s prepared to find a way to make that end.
Then he finds Greta (Keira Knightley), a nervous musician on stage at a bar after being pushed by her friends to show her talents. Greta plays a quiet song with a guitar that doesn’t excite the crowd, but Dan sees an arrangement happening and the potential bursting within the music. The film sets up this piece of the narrative over a 20-minute span, using these three minutes as a way to introduce the characters and how they were both pushed to this moment. It’s a smart storytelling tactic by writer-director John Carney, allowing the scene a wider perspective to demonstrate the utter despair both of these people feel in their lives. Greta’s similarly down on her luck, having come to New York with her boyfriend, Dave (Adam Levine), who launches a singing career and begins to reach stardom. They used to sing together, recording videos of duets and working in tandem for writing. Now, he’s beginning to sell out and craft songs that push aside all they’ve done. After he cheats on her, she feels lost and prepared to head home to the UK. Then she runs into Dave.
He hatches the idea that they should record an album outdoors during the summer in New York City. It’s a concept album at its most extreme, capturing the turmoil of the city while simultaneously using natural sound stages to let the music work for itself. Carney’s film develops as a simplistic one by nature, yet it defines itself by the eccentricities of the characters and their interactions with music. Take, for instance, a moment when Greta prepares to leave a clichéd post-breakup message on Dave’s phone while drunk. Where the scene could’ve had her character emotionally fall apart, she stands strong and comes up with a genius idea: to write a revenge song and leave that as the recording. The scene captures that song in full and lets the audience marvel at the strength of the character and her best friend always by her side, Steve (James Corden). There’s another scene where everyone is gathered at a party and Steve says that no one can resist dancing to the song about to be played. Naturally, everyone freezes and fights the urge to dance. It’s one of the happiest progressions I’ve seen, speaking volumes about the infectious nature of music and the way it brings out the innate happiness in all of us.
The performances here are terrific. Ruffalo in the lead makes his character a likable drunk, one we despise for his weakness of character while also loving his ability to create music out of nothing. He’s a creative genius stuck in a rut that makes his personal life a nightmare. He brings humor and compassion to what could’ve been a one-note, fake man. Knightley is equally affecting. A scene near the end of the film shows her love for music overpowers her love for a man, demonstrating her strength as a musician. The film surprisingly avoids romance when it can; this isn’t a romantic comedy, nor is it a music tale mixed with romance like Once (a superior film). Instead, it’s a film that shows the love we all have for music, and the way that these people care about that work so much more than a romantic relationship. The supporting performances are strong, Carney’s direction is fluid despite clunky elements structurally, and the ending is moving and whole. Excluding the credits sequence that tacks on far too much for the story, Begin Again is a terrific look at the power of music.
Grade: ★★★★ (out of 5)