Begin Again opens in a dark bar where Gretta (Kiera Knightly) is gently forced by her guitar-playing friend, Steve (James Corden), to get up on stage and sing one of her songs. Dan (Mark Ruffalo) is drunk. Before he stumbled into the bar, the music producer was set on convincing his partner that what their studio needed was not another shallow, teeny-bopper, techno hit, but an artist that met his “real” qualifications: honest, genuine, raw, unique. All of this becomes mute when Dan’s crazy debating antics, drunken state, and inability to compromise lose him his job in front of his teenage daughter. To add insult to injury, Dan takes his daughter to a bar, skips out on paying his tab, gets punched by a bartender, and is later humiliated by his estranged wife.
It’s obvious that although Dan is drunk, he’s visibly upset, hurt, even embarrassed. But everything changes when he stumbles into that same bar where Gretta is singing a song. As Gretta sings, Dan imagines a piano softly playing in the background. A cello and violin invisibly pick up their bows and raise the song above its melancholy tune. The drum sticks are picked up in the background and build towards the climax of the song. Dan’s eyes are closed. He’s directing the arrangement, imagining each instrument working together as one to create the hit he’s been searching for.
Rewind. We don’t know it yet, but Gretta was actually part of a writing/singing duo with Dave Kohl (Adam Levine), who was also her live-in boyfriend of five years. We learn that not only does Dave make it big in the industry, assigning Gretta to the support role of fetching everyone coffee and staying silent, but he also has been cheating on Gretta. So Gretta leaves Dave. Later, we see her watching old videos of Dave and her writing and making music together. The relationship ran deep: it was both a work partnership and collaboration as well as a romantic friendship, which heightens the level of pain and betrayal Gretta is dealing with.
Fast forward. We’re back in the bar, and Gretta is singing her song. Dan has claimed her song is a hit, and he begs Gretta to let him sign her. Gretta quickly finds out that Dan can’t sign her: he just lost his job. After a little persuading, Dan gets Gretta on board to convince Dan’s partner to give her song a chance. When they’re denied the opportunity, together Dan and Gretta decide to make an album organically: record outside, in various locations through New York City; find some bored musicians to accompany, and make a demo record to show off to his partner.
All of that happened within the first half hour of the movie. I wasn’t sure if I was going to like the movie at that point. I didn’t care for the premise, but like any good screenplay should have, Begin Again did include a beginning with characters that had bad things happen – and gave them a reason to start over. A plot was born. However, it took a long time to get to that point. I had a lot of unanswered questions. I didn’t understand his relationship with his estranged wife (or his wife, for that matter). I didn’t like Dan at all – he was a drunk mess, had a bad attitude, and appeared to be a terrible father. I also didn’t understand why Gretta would take a chance on Dan; my only guess is that getting cheated on, betrayed, and thrown out made her desperate enough to give Dan a chance.
The movie really picks up when the newfound group is recording songs. We get scenes of different musicians joining the group and recording songs together. I thought Kiera Knightly was easily the star of the film, much like the lead singer in the group. It was great to see her stretch her acting muscles and again play a character that wasn’t in a period-type role. I remember being really surprised to see her acting against Steve Carell in Seeking a Friend for the End of the World. It was another modern-day movie, and she seemed to have a lot of fun. In Begin Again, Knightly holds her own against Ruffalo, another actor who is a bit older than she is.
Mark Ruffalo, on the other hand, played a character that was erratic and all over the place. Normally, I’m a pretty big fan of Ruffalo, but this was not his greatest role. I wasn’t sure if I was supposed to start liking Dan after we learn the story behind his estranged wife. I couldn’t tell if the character was selfish just in the beginning. I felt like his character wasn’t written very consistently throughout the film. To me, it seemed like Carney might have had a better understanding of Gretta than Dan when writing. Or perhaps he was trying to prove the point that like Dan, the music business – and many who work in that business – are unstable and volatile, but at the end of the day, either stay alive by knowing what sells, changing with the business, or are left behind for staying true to one’s roots.
Adam Levine was an interesting choice to play David Kohl. When Levine’s character was in the recording studio, on stage, performing, it was obvious Levine was most comfortable. When there were scenes of dialogue or straight acting, he felt a little awkward, and very much the person many know from The Voice. Although Levine didn’t do a bad job, it’s difficult to separate the person from the actor when he’s a real-life singer who is supposed to act as a singer and not get compared to his real-life self. I would be interested in seeing Levine play a role that wasn’t a musician or performer.
Begin Again is heavily compared to Once with its similar premise and themes and shared writer/director John Carney. I haven’t seen Once, although I have heard a lot about it. There were a couple movies that Begin Again reminded me of, but the one I couldn’t stop thinking about was Music and Lyrics. Hugh Grant plays a similar character to both Mark Ruffalo and Adam Levine: he’s down on his luck, with things not going well for him like Mark Ruffalo’s character. But he’s also the singing star that Adam Levine plays. Kiera Knightly’s character is similar to Drew Barrymore in Music and Lyrics in that she’s the writing force behind the duo. She’s also dealing with a jerk who broke her heart. Knightly and Ruffalo working together reminded me a lot of Grant and Barrymore working together to write a song. Albeit, the plot is much more involved in Begin Again, I did enjoy comparing and contrasting the two films. And I did enjoy Begin Again considerably more than Music and Lyrics.
I definitely got lost in the music of Begin Again in the best way possible.The music was very catchy, and there are some great scenes that make the movie very enjoyable to watch. I’m decidedly purchasing the soundtrack for the film. In case you haven’t seen the end, I’ll leave that part a secret. I was happy that the movie stayed true to itself.
Here’s Kiera Knightly singing “Lost Stars” from the soundtrack. I like both hers’ and Adam Levine’s versions:
I give Begin Again THREE out of FOUR open eyes.
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