Flailing music A&R man Dan Mulligan (Ruffalo) stumbles into a bar and is bowled over by heartbroken singer-songwriter Greta (Knightley). Bonding over similarly bad days, the pair decide to launch a creative project to beat the blues: an album recorded on the streets of New York.
Before it was called the monumentally generic Begin Again, John Carney’s film was called Can A Song Save Your Life?, a title-cum-tagline that is a bit on the nose, a bit awkward and completely emotionally naked. It couldn’t be more apt. Following 2007’s gorgeous Once, Begin Again is Carney’s next entry into his peculiarly niche Nice People Surmount Emotional Problems By Strumming A Guitar genre, now with bigger names and better shooting stock. His New York Valentine may never hit the heady heights of his Dublin charmer, but this emerges as lovely stuff, winningly played, open-hearted and guaranteed to slap on a smile on a balmy summer night.
This is more than just a step up in star wattage and budget for Carney; it’s also a step up in ambition. Whereas Once kept its focus to a guy, a girl and a hoover, Begin Again takes in not only a bigger catchment of characters but also a more tricksy structure. After the opening scene in which Mark Ruffalo’s A&R man is blindsided by watching Keira Knightley’s reluctant songwriter perform her song to a generally apathetic crowd, the movie rewinds twice, revealing the miserable day — Dan loses his record company job, Greta has split from her about-to-break-big rock singer boyfriend Dave (Maroon 5’s Adam Levine) — that gifts the pair an initial connection.
The relationship develops, but not in the way you’d expect. As the pair begin to work on an album incorporating the ambient sounds of the New York streets, Carney, Knightley and Ruffalo build a lovely chemistry, his crumpled hucksterism playing nicely against her bruised Britishness. This doesn’t build to a sex scene. Instead, it builds to the sharing of playlists and the recording of songs. As he showed with Once, Carney is a genius at depicting the shared joy of creating music, and in Begin Again he’s helped by a clutch of strong songs by New Radicals frontman Gregg Alexander. There is uplift (Ruffalo orchestrating a song in an alley), there is heartbreak (Knightley realising a song Dave has written has been inspired by someone else), there is James Corden on a kazoo. It’s an idealised, perhaps misguided view of the modern music world that the antidote to manufactured synthetic pop is Keira Knightley with a guitar recorded with traffic going by (although as in The Edge Of Love, she proves she has a solid voice), but Carney makes a sweet, seductive argument.
Away from the music, we get pulled into Dan and Greta’s personal lives — Dan’s relationship with his disconnected daughter (Hailee Steinfeld) and distant wife (Catherine Keener) is more compelling than Greta’s moping after Dave — and we watch how art mysteriously, magically informs the heart. As with Once, Carney injects a nice strain of absurdist humour — watch Ruffalo wrestling with a huge painting — and there’s nice small turns from the likes of Mos Def as Dan’s record company cohort, CeeLo Green as a hip-hop artist who funds Greta’s album and performs an intentionally terrible rap, and Corden as a college mate who brightens up Greta’s life (and story arc). There’s perhaps one musical montage too many, but Carney has the assurance to let the film amble, confident its understated pleasures will get you in the end. And, if you leave your cynicism at the concessions stand, they will.
Begin Again is a joyous movie about the good things in life: love, family, relationships, New York, creativity and music. And Knightley and Ruffalo make for one of the most unusual engaging couples of the year.