Dr. Donna Copeland’s
KERIA KNIGHTLY MARK RUFFALO ADAM LAVINE CATHERINE KEENER
HAILEE STEINFELD MOS DEF CEELO GREEN
Studios spend so much money trying to prep and manipulate their movie to become the breakout hit of the summer, and then a smaller film with all the right tones and notes, that debuted last year at Toronto just casually walks in and steals the summer. Begin Again is the return to film about music for writer/director John Carney after his sleeper hit Once in 2006. Begin Again has a large appeal to it; the musical element not-withstanding, the film sheds a different glow on New York than we typically see on screen. Carney’s script also plays by its own rules, throwing typical structure out the window, and finds its own particular rhythm. The thing Once lacked was powerful performances, and Begin Again satisfies that with a performance from Knightly (Pride & Prejudice, Never Let Go) that proves she is back in top form.
Dave (Lavine) has become one of the most sought after singer acts in the world. He and his longtime girlfriend and collaborator Greta (Knightly) move to New York temporarily to explore this new world of stardom, fandom and creativity. However, Dave decides one of his new record label assistants is more inspiring and leaves Greta. A sympathy request from Greta’s friend gets her on stage at a local music club, and she sings one song and captures the drowning imagination of music producer Dan (Ruffalo), who hears her song the way no one else does. He begs and pleads with Greta to work on this crazy idea he has about recording an album live throughout the streets of New York with ambient city noise in the background.
“Vision, not gimmicks,” one character says about what they should be looking for in new talent. Both what Dan does with Greta and what Carney has created here is anything but a gimmick. There hasn’t been a film this year that can make you relax and enjoy what you are seeing and hearing as much as this film. It’s the definitive summer film of 2014, and with performances so good Ruffalo and Knightly might even get Golden Globe nominations come awards time. Ruffalo has been consistently good when he takes these lower budget films like Thanks for Sharing or The Kids Are All Right; that’s when he is his best. Knightly has suffered overexposure in the last few years and has struggled to find roles to get back to the creative actress she is. This role and even her voice here once again prove her talent and strength; she commands the screen.
I found this film far more accessible, enjoyable, and it sounds much more pleasing than Once. The real beauty of the film is the plutonic relationship between Knightly and Ruffalo; finally a film is brave and smart enough to have men and women interacting in a beautiful, even artistically romantic way that doesn’t involve sex or characters ending up together. It’s a perfect and brave element for the film that gives and earns respect for both genders. Levine does a good job in his first feature film role, and having Keener here is just the icing on the cake. There are so many wonderful things to enjoy about this film. However, it’s the resonating songs that will stick with you long after.
Final Thought – The perfect summer experience, Knightly reminds us of her power as an actress.
Begin Again is an apt title in that there are a number of new beginnings in this uplifting story. John Carney, writer/director of Once, has created a similar, but still very different film about musicians. A record label business executive (Mark Ruffalo) is on his last leg, seemingly down and out, and continuing a self-destructive course, when he coincidentally hears a singer with the potential he knows he could make into a star. I was impressed with the scenes where we first hear Gretta (Keira Knightely) by herself with a guitar, then later we hear her with the musical back-up the executive Dan imagines in his head (the back-up instruments are playing themselves). A bit of ingenious filmmaking.
Another aspect I appreciated so much is the character of Gretta, who is a soft, warm, nurturing woman but nobody’s patsy. She starts out being devoted to her rock star boyfriend Dave (Adam Levine), writing his songs, taking coffee to people on his team, and hanging out while he goes to Los Angeles and gets involved with someone else. Even then, she is forgiving, but not willing to sell herself out. And when she becomes an active collaborator with Dan and makes her own album, she is an astute businesswoman in negotiating with the record label business. This is one of Knightley’s best performances, with none of the odd facial grimaces that have characterized her appearance in some of her previous films.
Likewise, Mark Ruffalo is at his best, playing someone from an older generation who is trying desperately to adapt to the new age. Like many men of that era, his character has to be metaphorically and lovingly kicked in the stomach before he is willing to look into himself with any insight and let go of long-lasting resentments, which he does eventually.
Solid supporting roles by Catherine Keener, Hailee Steinfeld, Mos Def, James Corden, and Ceelo Green give both nuance and spark to the engaging story. Music by Gregg Alexander, frontman for the New Radicals, a 90’s rock group, is good enough to make the soundtrack likely to be a popular selection, with two of the songs being contributed by John Carney and Glen Hansard. Alexander and cinematographer Yaron Orbach had to be adept at filming in tight places and moving around the city outdoors, which they did with admirable expertise. The City of New York itself becomes a character in the story, intentionally, perhaps, because Carney fell in love with it when filming Once and apparently again for Begin Again.
Altogether a fine production that I think most people who like the music of today will enjoy.
By Donna R. Copeland