An Unlikely Pair with an Unlikely Sound
When Keira Knightley’s character Greta, a tomboy-dressed Brit, performs an original song during an open-mic night, a music producer named Dan (Mark Ruffalo) becomes entranced in smile. The song is a ballad, and the energized bar crowd quickly loses interest in her wispy, melancholic hymn. But Dan, in a drunken clarity, hears magic, and mentally filters in keyboards, drums, and strings to accompany her acoustic guitar. She impulsively shrinks off the stage embarrassed. He feverishly introduces himself with a business card.
That’s the opening to Begin Again, another musically inclined urban fable from writer-director John Carney. We actually see this scene two more times, each from a new perspective, a flashback of the day that eventually unites these two lost souls, or lost stars, as one of Greta’s soon-to-be hit songs is called. The open-mic epiphany thus serves as the titular starting point, a rejuvenation that transforms a final drink and a reluctant performance into a musical reincarnation.
Carney’s first hit Once, the small budget Irish romantic drama,essentially lays the same redemptive blueprint here, this time in New York City’s rooftops, alleys, and corners. Glen Hansard, the star of that movie, has written a few songs in this re-imagination, but his surrogate this time is on a different wavelength. Before his dive bar discovery, Dan awakes alone, sporting a drunken, scruffy face. He’s estranged from his wife (Catherine Keener) of 18 years, has turned to alcohol for meals, and has no connection with his daughter (Hailee Steinfeld). He pops in CD demos of hopeful pop stars into his vintage car that he discards out the window. After five seconds of bitter nasal punk projection, Dan is bored. Mainstream artists have turned him sour, but his record label shoves his idealism out the door. His dignity makes him unemployed.
Greta’s backstory sees the pop panacea affect her personal relationship. She’s attached to Dave Kohl, an Adam Levine type played by Adam Levine. They write songs together and he lands a recording contract in New York. But fame quickly supersedes his humble beginnings. He gets big, she stays home, things inevitably hit the rocks. Greta holes up in her friend Steve’s (James Corden) small apartment and mopes her way to booking a flight back home. Steve drags her to the bar where she strums her tune and Dan makes his pitch.
Knightley’s voice isn’t anything spectacular, which is the way Dan’s label partner played by Mos Def sees her acoustic act. It’s rather ordinary really, but Dan envisions something revolutionary, a last ditch appeal to prove his musical prowess. Instead of a real studio, they record her performances in their natural environment, cars honking, neighbors complaining, urban white noise. They gather up a band with help from Cee Lo Green (Dan’s former client) and start playing her songs in back lots and underneath bridges, postcard music videos comprised of various ethnic and orchestral instrumentalists. It’s all very New York.
The songs are supposed to portray an underdog production but the music sounds too clean and mixed. That’s the small problem with this kind of movie. Everything its main characters stand for is undermined by their sound quality. This isn’t a major flaw but it shrinks the gap between the band’s proposed earthy rawness with Dave’s culturally coddled mainstream. The dichotomy between Knightley’s soft phrasing and Levine’s anthemic falsetto is the focal point here. You get the sense Carney wants this movie to be his treatise on today’s Top 40 noise blocking out the real independent melodies, but he never fully commits.
But the movie’s likeable qualities have less to do with performing than simply listening. In one scene, Dan and Greta stroll around the city late at night listening to Frank Sinatra and Stevie Wonder through an earphone splitter. They dance around Times Square, sway in the subway, somehow sing along in a crowded nightclub. Some sexual promise begins boiling but Carney is wary of falling into too many tropes. He chooses a platonic route and directs Dan’s family back into the picture, a wiser, if not momentum-killing choice.
Dave comes back into the picture after Greta leaves him an unnecessary voicemail. It’s one of the only wrong notes the movie hits but Carney wants to keep pushing the music industry problem button. He’s a clever editor, and while the music doesn’t have the resonance of Once’s “Falling Slowly” or “Lies,” nothing is too disagreeable. Carney doesn’t seem to be looking for hit songs though. He’s looking for a message.
It comes from Ruffalo, who by the end of the end of the movie has transformed from drunken has-been to fatherly philosopher. He sits with Greta with their ear buds in and they observe the flow of traffic and scattering walkers. “Music makes the banalities turn into pearls,” he says. Carney has taken a standard romantic drama and believes his music does the same. He’s close. Banalities into fake pearls.