Now this my friends, is a musical. Clint Eastwood, please take notes while reading this review.
Begin Again is a New York set story of two people as down on their luck as they could possibly get. Greta (Keira Knightley) is a singer/songwriter who has recently had her heart torn open by her partner/lover Dave (Adam Levine) who has cheated on her and stole one of her songs for his own use. Dan (Mark Ruffalo) is a disgraced music producer who hasn’t created anything of note in years, especially after his marriage to his cheating wife Miriam (Catherine Keener) fell apart, and he’s all but completely lost touch with his teenage daughter Violet (Hailee Stienfeld), only seeing her once or twice a month. By complete chance, a drunken Dan stumbles into a bar and hears Greta sing one of her songs, and like magic, his mind almost instantly has a vision. He can bring the best out of this young artist. Together, the two form a bond as they create an album for Greta using the city of New York as their studio.
I went into this movie completely blind. I had not seen one trailer, or really even heard anything about it other then that it was directed by John Carney, who’s previous effort Once is a cult classic that I have not yet seen. As such, I really didn’t know what I was expecting, but what I got is one of my favorite films of 2014 so far. Sound too good to be true? That’s because it is. While I loved this movie, it was not an easy journey getting there.
The first twenty five minutes or so of this movie are pretty rough. I don’t know if I was just adjusting to Carney’s style, or if it was genuinely bad just yet, but I’m pretty sure it was the latter. The characters begin this movie in a very stereotypical place, and the performances reflect that in a very over the top fashion. Knightley puts on just about every sad face she can without actually being very convincing, Ruffalo comically overplays the drunken, easily angered Dan to maddening effect, and Stienfeld, who at one time seemed so promising in True Grit, is completely barren and flat. Also, the dialogue in this movie is very play-like, especially at first, and the movie spends no time easing you into it. While Carney shoots this like a down and dirty New York tale, what these characters are saying to each other is straight out of a 1950’s movie musical. It just does not jive at first.
But then, Ruffalo and Knightley meet, and everything that was wrong with the movie before quickly evaporates, and one of the most genuinely charming and touching films I’ve seen in a long time begins.
This is one of the only movies I’ve ever seen about music where the characters actually seem to love music. This is exemplified in the first scene where the movie really turns on, where Ruffalo visualizes an incredible arrangement behind Knightly’s seemingly anemic track, and carries through the rest of the film. There are so many electric conversations about the sheer creative process that ultimately goes into this album, and it’s so much fun to watch that all come together. It also helps that Knightly and Ruffalo have electric chemistry together. All of a sudden, what sounded stagey and fake when only one of them was on screen starts to flourish when the two are together. There’s moments of such euphoric happiness between them, especially when Carney is letting them act more visually. My favorite scene in this film, and one of the best scenes of any film this year is a simple sequence where our two leads are walking through the city listing to music together. Hardly any dialogue, just the natural dynamics doing their work, and it’s beautiful. As such, the movie finally starts to ground itself in it’s own slightly heightened but still very potent version of real life, and it’s absolutely entrancing.
Another pleasant surprise is the performance of Adam Levine. I think that a lot of the time, people really want to root against musicians trying something different, but I think he’s going to win a lot of fans here. His character isn’t written like the stereotypical jerk that populates these kind of movies, but a three dimensional man who’s struggling with balancing all of the different things he wants. Levine navigates all of this very nicely with some surprisingly subtle and grounded acting. Also, out of all the actors, he by far excels the most in the music category. The few songs he gets here sound like the music Maroon 5 used to make before they were eaten by the pop monster, and Levine’s vocals sound better than ever.
Speaking of music, the songs here are really solid. They strike that perfect, loving balance between rock and folk. Some work better than others. Most of them, especially the ones sung by Levine absolutely sour, but some definitely blend together. Knightly’s singing leaves a little to be desired, with all of her numbers having very similar arrangements that make it feel like one expanded song. With that said, it is still perfectly serviceable and she has one song towards the end of the film that is absolutely fantastic.
What really carries this thing over the top for me is how everything ultimately resolves. No spoilers here, but I was very impressed with how organically the characters come to their conclusion It’s not the typical ending you see in so many of these type of films, spitting in the face of cliche and providing a resolution that is a perfect blend of optimism and cynicism. It’s how this situation would realistically resolve itself, and it feels completely earned given everything we’ve seen.
It’s simply amazing how much this film rebounded in my eyes. After such a wonky start, it managed to become not only a wonderfully charming musical, but a really touching and authentic look at creative relationships. There are so many moments peppered throughout that are just masterclasses in directing and acting, and the screenplay is up to the task, keeping it’s characters and the audience on their toes. If you want to see a musical this summer, don’t settle for Jersey Boys just because it’s closer. Drive that extra 20 minutes to see a film that will make you fall in love with the idea of the musical all over again.