There’s a scene early in John Carney’s new movie Begin Again where the two main characters are discussing the concept of authenticity in the music business.
Gretta (Keira Knightley) suggests that Bob Dylan is an artist who stands up to her lofty standards. “That’s the most cultivated artist you could have thought of!” Dan (Mark Ruffalo) shoots back, arguing that Dylan’s image is totally manufactured, with a look that changes every decade.
So Gretta changes course and suggests Randy Newman is the most authentic artist of all time. Even Dan has to admit she’s right: Newman has never tried to be a star. He’s just done his own thing for years, without kowtowing to the audience.
The discussion underlines the differences between this latest release, and Carney’s last U.S.–released film, the instant classic Once. In that one, Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova play two broken-hearted musicians who come together on the streets of Dublin and heal themselves through the power of music. It’s a subtle, sweet, small miracle of a film, one that features great songs (one of which won an Oscar for Best Original Song) and performances that are earnest, fragile, and heartfelt. It’s totally authentic. (Hell, Hansard and Irglova even fell in love while making it.)
If it ain’t broke, why fix it, right? No wonder Carney here tells a very similar music-heals-all story: Dan is a record exec on a self-destructive streak, who’s been dumped by the label he co-founded and the wife (Catherine Keener) and daughter (Hailee Steinfeld, of True Grit) who consider him a waste of time. Gretta is an aspiring singer-songwriter who has just broken up with her boyfriend (Adam Levine, of Maroon 5), a rock star on the rise. Both need to rediscover their passion, and do so while recording an album all over New York City.
Not to make this review a total comparison of the two films, but what works so well about Once is that it’s not filled with big names or slick production values. It stars actual unknown musicians, the dialogue feels real, and much of the charm comes from the fact that it’s absolutely lacking in any clichés.
By contrast, what’s so frustrating about Begin Again is that it wants to be just as charming as Once is, but instead, it’s a much more conventional imitation of that film. It features not just one but two coaches from The Voice (Cee Lo Green has a wholly unnecessary small supporting role); songs by Gregg Alexander, of the New Radicals, that just aren’t as good as Hansard and Irglova’s; an overdone performance by Ruffalo (so much better in HBO’s recent The Normal Heart movie); scenes that stretch credibility (especially if you know the geography of New York); and perhaps worst of all, a heavy handed message.
In seeking a bigger audience, Carney has diluted nearly everything that was special about Once. To quote something Gretta says to her ex when she’s disappointed in the over-produced, radio-friendly way he’s recorded one of her ballads, “You weren’t supposed to lose the song in it. It’s delicate.” Bingo.
And yet, if Begin Again as a whole is disappointing, it’s redeemed by moments throughout that prove Carney’s overall point that music creates connections between people, and can make the ordinary extraordinary. This comes out in some pretty wonderful ways — for example, when Dan first hears Gretta sing, accompanying herself on guitar, and he imagines multiple other instruments behind her, creating more of a wall of sound. Or when the two sit still on a park bench, watching the utterly banal realities of nightlife play out while a song pipes through their earbuds and makes it all more magical.
Beneath the mainstream fluff, there’s a better movie trying to get out. You can see that in the scenes when the film focuses on the relationship between Dan and Steinfeld’s Violet. Kudos to Steinfeld for giving one of the film’s more notable performances.
And, it should be said, when Levine takes the stage to sing the movie’s marquee song, the sure-to-be-Oscar-nominated “Lost Stars,” you’ll forget how much you hate him for the rest of the movie, and will leave the theater liking him — and that song. Great song. (It’s definitely better than the new Maroon 5 single, “Maps.”)
Begin Again will be a letdown to anyone who loves Once (or the Broadway show it inspired). To use the characters’ own metaphor, it’s more Dylan than Newman. But thanks to moments like those mentioned, and a few others like them, the movie still gets a pass — if only a minor one .
I’m giving Begin Again a B–.
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