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Begin Again

D: John Carney / 104m

Cast: Mark Ruffalo, Keira Knightley, Hailee Steinfeld, Adam Levine, James Corden, Yasiin Bey, Catherine Keener, CeeLo Green

Record label executive Dan Mulligan (Ruffalo) is struggling to keep up with the changing pace of the modern music industry. Separated from his wife Miriam (Keener) and estranged from his daughter Violet (Seinfeld), Dan’s partner in the record company he co-founded, Saul (Bey) fires him. He goes on a drinking binge that sees him end up in bar where English singer-songwriter Gretta James (Knightley) is persuaded to take to the stage by her friend, Steve (Corden). The song she sings captivates Dan and he approaches Gretta with the offer of signing her.

Gretta isn’t interested in Dan’s offer because she’s planning to return to England the next day. She’s in the US because she came over with her boyfriend, Dave Kohl (Levine), when he was signed to a record label. While on a promotional jaunt, he slept with a record label executive; unhappy and discouraged, Gretta just wants to leave and put her relationship with Dave behind her. The next morning, though, she takes up Dan on his offer. This forces him to come clean about his position, but he convinces her to go with him to see Saul; Dan is sure Saul will sign her, but without a demo to give him, he passes.

Undeterred, Dan comes up with a plan to make an album of Gretta’s songs by recording them all over the city: on rooftops, subway platforms, alleyways, wherever they can. Dan assembles a team of musicians that includes Steve, while Gretta, in an attempt to reunite him with his daughter, arranges for Violet to play guitar on one of the songs. With the album completed they see Saul again but leave without a deal having been reached (Gretta wants Dan to get his job back as well as a bigger cut of the profits).

Shortly after, Gretta sees Dave accepting an award on TV and believing him to have sold out, pours out her feelings in a song she sings and leaves on his voicemail. Dave gets in touch with her and asks to meet when he’s back in New York. Greta agrees but finds that her feelings for Dan are changing from professional to personal. Unsure of which way to turn, Gretta meets Dave in the hope that she’ll be able to decide which path to take.

Begin Again - scene

A fresh take on an age-old story, Begin Again belies its Svengali-like origins to give its audience a modern day interpretation that sidesteps many of its genre conventions with a knowing wink and a shrug of indifference. Working from his own script, director Carney fashions a story of two peoples’ separate roads to personal empowerment and redemption that neatly avoids the clichés inherent in such scenarios, and makes the movie feel like a breath of fresh air.

Playing around with the structure in the movie’s first half hour, Carney introduces the viewer to Dan and Gretta with a view to telling their back stories in such a way that by the time they begin to make the album they’re like old friends we’ve known for ages. We get to see Dan at his worst and Gretta at her most trusting. We see them come together and start to rely on each other as they begin to rebuild their lives. It’s in these opening scenes that Carney draws the audience in and sets up the dramatic elements that will pay off later on in the movie (but not in the way that you might expect). And he doesn’t fall into the usual traps, for example: despite the predictable nature of Gretta and Dave’s break up, it’s presented in the kind of “adult” way you rarely see in movies. It’s a relatively short scene but Carney packs it with an emotional punch that is frankly disarming (and he’s ably abetted by Knightley and Levine).

With Dan and Gretta’s relationship so well cemented the movie’s central section becomes a joyous evocation of making an album. This is Begin Again at its most winning and infectious, the sheer pleasure of making music in a live environment so evident you can’t help but tap your feet along with the songs. And thanks to the efforts of composer Gregg Alexander these are terrific songs indeed, catchy and effortlessly perceptive about life and love and the pitfalls of both. Knightley, who hadn’t sung before, is assured here, her soft, soulful voice a perfect match for the material.

Alas, the final third, with its need to wrap things up, undermines some of the good work Carney has put in. Gretta and Dan each arrive at a place that befits their individual struggles, but there’s a sense that they’ve been let down by Carney’s determination not to play it safe and to avoid the movie having a predictable ending. Even with this, his leads remain convincing throughout, handling their characters’ journeys from start to finish with skill, confidence and conviction. Ruffalo gives such an impressive performance it’s hard to take your eyes off him, while Knightley invests Gretta with a stubborn, earnest vulnerability that is mesmerising. When on screen together they spark off each other, each raising their game, each making the movie even richer. In support, Steinfeld, Keener and Corden all provide charming turns, while Levine (from Maroon 5) makes his feature debut and is very good indeed.

With its emotional content linked directly to, and expressively through, its songs, Begin Again is a musical drama that packs several unexpected punches, and if its near rags-to-riches feel has an unavoidable touch of whimsy wrapped around it, then it’s no bad thing. This is a feelgood movie, and unashamedly so.

Rating: 8/10 – guaranteed to put a smile on anyone’s face during its musical numbers, Begin Again is a lively, effervescent movie that is both delightful and poignant in equal measure; with assured turns from its two leads, it’s a movie that entertains and rewards far more than it should do given its bittersweet ending.