Irish filmmaker John Carney must surely have been surprised when Once, his micro-budget Dublin music movie with two unknown singer-songwriters as its leads, topped every critic’s list in 2007, won the Oscar for best original song and went on to become a hit Broadway musical.
And perhaps he will be surprised for a second time if the rather similar Begin Again has no such success; certainly it looks like a movie intended to replicate the natural charm of Once but with a larger, North American audience as its target. It’s a self-conscious calculation that inevitably limits its appeal.
This time out, Carney has a budget, stars and a New York setting. Keira Knightley plays Greta, a young English singer-songwriter whose American boyfriend Dave (Adam Levine of the L.A. band Maroon 5) has just hit the big time. Greeted by fawning record-industry types, they arrive in New York to launch the next stage of his career which, it rapidly becomes apparent, does not include her. He has an affair with an assistant and dumps her; she is about to head home in a funk when her sympathetic friend, colleague and compatriot Steve (James Corden) drags her up on stage at a local bar.
As she sings her song of heartbreak, she is heard by Dan: Mark Ruffalo plays an alcoholic record label exec who is busy pissing away his career and his marriage. In Greta’s voice he hears the next big act that will save him. Trouble is, Greta is not willing to sell out to the business the way the callow Dave did.
The film begins with Greta and Dan’s fateful encounter in the bar and its first act is cleverly structured in flashbacks from there. However, once we catch up to that meeting, the movie takes on a rather predictable, let’s-put-on-a-show momentum as the mismatched, underfunded pair begin recording a live demo album outdoors in New York without permits – and music inevitably saves Greta, Dan and Dan’s teenage daughter.
There are some fun musical scenes here – a party hosted by the irrepressible best-friend Steve; a cameo by CeeLo Green playing himself but with a fictional debt of gratitude toward Dan’s scouting talents – but the score actually presents a problem.
In Once, we only had to believe the busker’s songs were good enough that his notion of cutting a demo album and heading to London wasn’t a complete pipe dream. Here, we have to believe that the mopey Greta’s rather familiar if pleasant enough singer-songwriter act is the stuff that could light jaded record company execs on fire or, when the songs are appropriated by the loathsome Dave and orchestrated into rock anthems, fill stadiums with screaming fans. Everyone keeps catching each other’s eye knowingly when Greta sings, but the impact is created with movie acting rather than music making.
Not to say that Knightley, who sang her own songs for the film, isn’t vocally plausible in the role, and her spoken performance is a nicely balanced measure of charm and grit.
But Levine’s work as Dave is much more interesting. Again casting a singer-songwriter to play that musical role rather than an actor, Carney draws out a more naturalistic performance, rather in the manner of Once’s improvised scenes. The rising Dave seems unattractive and awkwardly self-satisfied from the get-go; a more polished actor would have added dramatic tension by making Dave a little more appealing but there is a real honesty in the rock-star jerk Levine creates here.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, Ruffalo shows us how the pros do it, making Dan’s skid-row alcoholism, irresponsible parenting, sense of entitlement and professional cynicism amusing little quirks that merely round out his rumpled charm.
Again repeating a key decision from Once, Carney refuses to give his characters traditional romantic endings; indeed, he so ambivalent about tidy endings, he only offers the final scenes as outtakes while the credits roll. Begin Again is a not-entirely-successful movie about not selling out; it’s a theme that must concern Carney deeply.