Irish director John Carney brought us the quirky and low-budget movie musical “Once” in 2007. “Begin Again,” his newest release, tries to replicate the charm of “Once” and almost succeeds in doing so. For its setting, the 2014 film swaps the streets of Dublin for an idealized version of New York City cherished by hipsters. There’s an abundance of red brick, green spaces and intimate music lounges and an absence of crowds. In “Once,” Carney selected the unknown actors Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová to play his leading man and lady. Both Hansard and Irglová were musicians first and actors second, and this was clear in the film. For the summer hit “Begin Again,” Carney casts quite a few famous faces. This tactic certainly brings more buzz to the movie, but the authenticity of the musical performances suffers. Much of the success of “Once” was due to that film’s well-crafted songs and sincere, natural acting. “Begin Again,” though undoubtedly an enjoyable night at the movies, is just a little too manufactured to have the same effect that its predecessor did. It’s clear that “Begin Again” got the Hollywood treatment: the cinematography is a little sharper and the actors more recognizable, but the storyline is slightly generic, the performances less heartfelt.
A scruffy-looking Mark Ruffalo plays Dan, a record label executive who has fallen from grace both professionally and personally. He lives in a shabby apartment suited more to a broke college student than a music business insider. He could use a shower, a change of clothes and a friend to tell him to put down the whiskey bottle. Ruffalo is the likable ne’er-do-well in “Begin Again,” a role he seems to play over and over again. However, he’s still a delight as Dan. Despite the character’s flaws, we sympathize with his struggle to connect with his moody teen daughter Violet (Hailee Steinfeld) and sort out his relationship with his estranged wife Miriam (Catherine Keener.) He’s also grappling with some unwanted changes at his record label and dislikes the onslaught of inauthentic pop musicians recently signed by his business partner.
Then Dan makes a promising discovery when he stumbles upon a hole-in-the-wall music lounge. This is where he meets Gretta, a British amateur folk singer-songwriter. Gretta, too, is down on her luck: her longtime boyfriend and occasional songwriting partner Dave has cheated on her after releasing a hit album, she has few friends in New York and she’s anxious to get home. Dan is inspired by Gretta’s performance at the lounge and offers to sign her to his label on the spot. Gretta, however, has strong convictions about musical integrity and rejects Dan’s proposal almost as quickly as he utters it. This is what is somewhat bothersome about Knightley’s character — why is she so particular about what she considers to be “authentic” music? Must the lyrics be mournful and overly serious? Many of the songs Gretta sings during the film seem either too cutesy or melodramatic, a cartoon version of real folk music. On the other hand, her ex-boyfriend’s (played by Adam Levine of Maroon 5, surprisingly effective in his role) newly released album is presented to be over-produced and fake, but his songs are the catchiest and most enjoyable of the lot.
For the bulk of the film, Gretta and Dan embark on a project to make an album themselves, independently and without help from a label. They record on the rooftops and in the alleyways of New York City, aiming to produce music with as much integrity as possible. They recruit a ragtag team of locals to play a variety of instruments for free. Even Violet gets in on the fun and performs a guitar solo in one of several rooftop musical scenes. Gretta and Dan’s album is a low-budget passion project, undertaken simply for the love of music. Unsurprisingly, as “Begin Again” progresses, Dan and Gretta begin to develop feelings for one another. However, just as in “Once,” these feelings never quite progress far enough for a full-fledged romantic relationship. Instead, Dan and his estranged wife rekindle their partnership towards the end of the film. This just seems like sloppy, clichéd scriptwriting.
Despite its flaws, “Begin Again” is worth a watch. Here’s why: the energy of the performances is infectious, and you’ll leave the theater in a brighter mood than the one you walked in with. Adam Levine’s turn as Gretta’s rock-star boyfriend Dave is fun to watch, and his version of the original song “Lost Stars” is uplifting and catchy — a true earworm. Keira Knightley does all of her own singing in the film, and her voice is lovely. The ensemble cast also includes James Corden, Yasiin Bey and Cee Lo Green. All three are as memorable in their roles as the more central players. It’s ironic that a movie whose characters are so fixated on authenticity and integrity is truly the more artificial, prepackaged little brother of another film, though it’s entertaining nonetheless. It’s no “Once,” but “Begin Again” is still worth the price of admission.