Ireland born director John Carney hit the scene in the mid-aughts with his breakthrough film “Once” (2006). A movie that at the time of its release captivated and moved audiences with its depiction of 2 Dublin lover/musicians that was both equal parts sweet, touching, and moving. It garnered a Best Original Song Oscar the following year, and it’s 2 leads went on to become successful internationally well-known touring musicians. A feat that doesn’t really happen but every so often in that its 2 lead central characters went on to become something bigger than their screen selves could have ever possibly imagined in their wildest dreams. It’s really stuff that miracles are made of, especially considering that it was an independent film made on a small budget. Enter 2013 after a 6 year hiatus and Carney is back once again, but instead of giving us another story about more street musicians living in Europe he takes what at first glimpse appeared, at least to me, to be a familiar formula from his previous film except for that fact that this time taking place in America using mostly a bigger cast of American friendly and familiar faces, and takes another stab at the feel good music drama formula.
“Begin Again” opens with introducing us to our first of our 2 main leads – a down on his luck, poor excuse for a father, barely holding on music producer played by the always superb Mark Ruffalo (who in thinking about is right up there with my slew of favorite actors). He is an alcoholic and as the story slowly stars to unfold, we begin to see how his old days of success and increased drinking has had on his music producing partner (played by Mos Def), his daughter (“True Grit”‘s young and obviously very talented Hailee Steinfeld), and ex-wife (the always puts a smile on my face Catherine Keener). Both his personal, family, and professional life seem to be in serious jeopardy. That is until he meets a recently split from her famous musician boyfriend (Maroon 5’s Adam Levine) and also vulnerable, down on her luck musician/muse character Keira Knightley. After some convincing her that he is her meal ticket to stardom. Knightley seems to equally need Ruffalo’s character as does her he in order for them to try and start both their lives over again.
I found myself really enjoying this film despite its somewhat predictable elements that we more or less have come to expect from a genre piece of its kind. The performances are all well written and acted, particularly that of Ruffalo’s character which I found to be an almost pseudo character study. He once again shines here as he did with his brave turn as an AIDS activist earlier this year in HBO’s “The Normal Heart”. Ruffalo always seems to somehow take a decent script and character and make it better because of his proficiency as an actor. The supporting turns by Mos Def, Catherine Keener, and Hailee Stenfield feel authentic and well cast. Also, Keira Knightley, who I can’t say I’m particularly fond of as an actress in a lead role does a pretty effective and convincing job here. And the 2 leads present a pretty believable on-screen duo. What felt slightly off to me here to go back to the predictability factor that I touched on earlier, was the clichéd storyline that propels us into an idea that the two leads come up with in hopes to achieve success. It felt slightly preposterous but because of my engagement in the story and having a keen sense of the genre of which it falls into, I found myself willing to suspend its plausibility factor. Lastly, and what I found to be the strongest element of the film, was Carney’s obvious knack of understanding the spellbinding power that music has on us all as human beings. The way in which music drives all of the characters portrayed, particularly of Knightley and the rag-tag group of street performers she’s set up with, has a certain energy and sense of inspiration that I thought was a strong point in a movie that is essentially an exploration of the power of music and how it can be a universally loved art form that has the potential to bring us joy in our lives when sometimes we can feel void of true feelings and inspire us to feel joyous, celebratory, and give us the power to feel like nothing else bad in the world actually exists. I thought at the core it captured that component quite well. Which is another credit to Carney and the way in which he seemingly understands this “universality of music” concept and applies it to his script and characters. Despite a couple of minor flaws I found this to be a mostly entertaining musical thrill ride. One that I can see both music lovers and aficionado’s alike enjoying as well as those looking for just a feel good musically themed drama with a fair amount of heart, spirit, and inspiration at the core of its story.