Begin Again is little more than a “let’s put on a show” musical
C+

Begin Again is little more than a “let’s put on a show” musical

C+

Begin Again

Director: John Carney
Runtime: 104 minutes
Rating: R
Cast: Mark Ruffalo , Keira Knightley, Hailee Steinfeld

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True to its title, Begin Again periodically restarts itself, nestling flashbacks within flashbacks; it’s an unnecessarily complicated structure for what is, frankly, little more than a corny, overstuffed, “let’s put on a show” musical. Keira Knightley plays the Judy Garland role as Gretta, a young English musician who moves to New York with her nerdy singer-songwriter boyfriend, Dave, only to watch him transform into someone who dresses and sings like Maroon 5’s Adam Levine. (Not coincidentally, he is also played by Maroon 5’s Adam Levine, who spends half of the movie wearing a paste-on lumberjack beard.) The movie doesn’t actually get to this backstory—which hits on every cliché about artists losing their identity and relationships to fame—until halfway through; the delayed reveal doesn’t make it any less hackneyed.   

And yet, frustratingly, Begin Again—a spiritual successor to writer-director John Carney’s 2006 surprise hit, Once—occasionally works, and even merits its loop-back structure. Its one standout sequence is actually a repeat of its opening scene, shown from a different character’s point of view; it needs the first iteration—and everything that happens in between, or before, depending on perspective—to work.  

The movie opens with  Gretta being asked to perform a song onstage by her college buddy Steve (James Corden). The audience is noisy and indifferent, and Gretta’s performance is awkward. When she’s done, the handheld camera turns from her to scan the crowd, landing on the previously unseen Dan (Mark Ruffalo), applauding and grinning from ear to ear. Before returning to the scene, the movie jumps back in time to the beginning of the day, following Dan as he drinks, picks up his daughter (Hailee Steinfeld) from school, and gets into an argument with his business partner, Saul (Yasiin Bey, the artist formerly known as Mos Def), leading Dan to quit the record label they co-founded. 

Already close to blackout drunk, Dan wanders into a Brooklyn tavern and slumps over face-down at the bar. He hears Gretta’s voice, accompanied by an acoustic guitar, and raises his head a few inches, until his right eye peeks out over his shoulder like a rising moon. He looks at the stage. Gretta is perched on a high stool; the next act’s instruments sit behind her. Dan concentrates. Suddenly, the hi-hat of the drum kit behind Gretta begins to click on its own. Dan looks to the left; the strings of a bass, left leaning against an amp, begin to move, followed by the keys of a piano on stage right. The bow of a violin—left sitting on the piano bench—rises into the air, and glides along the violin’s strings. In Dan’s head, the song blooms into a full-on studio arrangement, and the performance’s awkward ending turns into a graceful diminuendo.

The scene, which takes place largely inside Dan’s head, does a better job of conveying the euphoria of turning a song into a piece of recorded music than the actual recording scenes that dominate the back end of the movie. After first trying to impress Gretta with his business card and then admitting that he hasn’t signed an act in seven years, Dan convinces Gretta to let him produce her album, to be recorded at minimal cost and then sold to his former record label. This leads to countless interminable montages of Dan and Gretta recruiting musicians and performing outdoors, using a mobile recording setup installed by Steve into the back of Dan’s vintage black Jag. Meanwhile, ex-boyfriend Dave—who got his big break writing songs for a Once-like musical—tours and grows increasingly more famous.

Begin Again mixes one part authenticity with two parts cheesy artificiality. Dan has a believable trajectory; he’s an also-ran alt-rock bassist from the early ’90s whose sideline recording up-and-coming New York rappers turned into a now-fizzling career and a couple of useless Grammys. His relationship with his wife, Miriam (Catherine Keener), feels lived-in; they’ve been separated for years, but never formally divorced, and he still keeps most of his belongings in the house they once shared. Ruffalo, for his part, invests the character with a charm that makes Gretta’s willingness to go along with his plan seem credible.

Ironically, it’s the movie’s handling of both the creative and business sides of music that feels bogus, emotionally and narratively. (Troublegum, played by CeeLo Green, belongs in the Hall Of Fame of awful fictional rapper names.) The performance scenes are arbitrarily framed and cut together, never mustering the enthusiasm displayed in the tavern fantasy sequence—and since Gretta plays generic acoustic Starbucks fare with clunky lyrics, it’s hard to care. Her relationship with Dave—which supposedly motivates her creativity and gives the movie its shape—never feels like more than a collection of tropes and awkward swipes. A movie that was supposed to be about people coming together to create music never feels of a piece. 

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