Begin Again opens a tad abruptly (and somewhat unpleasantly) with Steve (James Corden) holding court at an open mic night in a dimly lit, cosy-looking bar in New York. The sight of Corden is worrying. Of all the things I want to see in a film, he’s not even nearly on the list, but it’s worth giving this movie the benefit of the doubt. He wraps up his set, gets a smattering of applause and, on the coattails of these good graces, coerces fellow Brit Greta (Keira Knightly) into performing one of her songs. She does so, and it’s pretty, seemingly to the complete indifference of the bar’s patrons… that is, except for Dan (Mark Ruffalo).
That this doesn’t feel even nearly like the film’s opening scene is entirely justified as it quickly becomes apparently that, for its first half hour at least, Begin Again is going to do a bit of narrative back and forth. Sure enough a series of flashbacks bring context to this bar scene, revealing the troubled circumstances that have brought Greta and Dan to the same place at the same time. These rubbery timelines are a neat hook, and while far from original, allow writer/director John Carney an entertaining approach to setting up the film’s singalong will-they/won’t-they concept.
Memento it isn’t. Once the back stories are sketched in, Begin Again quickly shifts gears. Dan, we have learned, is a somewhat disgraced A&R man recently fired from his own record label (presumably for his alcoholism, which is treated more like a roguish hobby here than any serious concern). Greta is half of a singer/songwriter partnership jilted by her significant other (the appropriately jerky Adam Levine) when Hollywood and
Yoko Ono another woman become more appealing. Together (after a few drinks, naturally) they plot to record an album without a recording studio, putting together a band to lay down some live jams out on the streets of New York.
Jools Holland just got dizzy.
Carney’s ‘bored now’ approach, drifting from one central conceit to another, is a little awkward, but it quickly becomes apparent that the main function of Begin Again is to serve as some feel-good summer entertainment, and on those terms he has whole-heartedly succeeded. His movie is a spirited one that keeps the pace springy and his characters’ blues mostly at bay. Indeed, once the concept album gets under way, we’re gifted what feels like one long, rapturous montage of a New York secretly owned by buskers and music lovers.
For all of this to work, and to sail on such a cheery mood, any real sense of challenge is softened. Recording an album on the streets, in alleyways, on a subway platform would be a logistical nightmare of intruding sounds, interruptions and hair-pulling frustrations, yet not once do the performers here need to, ahem, begin again. Aside from getting chased off by the cops once and miraculously convincing some wayward children to join in as backing singers, Dan and Greta face no difficulties in their crazy scheme. Need funding? Hey, here’s CeeLo Green, popping up mid movie to give them a blank cheque. Because someone had to.
Nevertheless, its easy to allow the overly-convenient reality of the movie to take hold and carry you along. This sense of an idealised world reaches it’s ecstatic high during a nighttime rooftop performance, when Dan’s own daughter Violet (Hailee Steinfield) shyly chimes in on her electric guitar. Mother Miriam (Catherine Keener) has forewarned Dan that she’s terrible at playing the guitar. What do you know? She owns the scene and kills the song. In a good way.
So what if every street corner performance sounds immaculately produced? Begin Again exists in that glimmering candy-coloured bubble that a lot of romantic comedies hang suspended in, precariously close to popping at all times, yet somehow cheerily perpetuating themselves. It largely shies away from the saccharine, and Carney even manages to use James Corden sparingly enough to alleviate those initial concerns.
Both Ruffalo and Knightly perform well here, although Knightly is handed the more well-rounded, believable character, even if her background story feels like first-draft sketching that’s simply been embellished on subsequent passes. Ruffalo’s problem, as good as he is, is that Dan’s troubles never seem that serious. Like everything else here, overcoming them is a little too easy. Any struggle would just be a buzz-kill, so Carney sidesteps difficulties altogether, somewhat nullifying the issues in the first place.
The film has the sheen of Hollywood finesse; a sharp contrast to the rough and ready handheld nature of Carney’s previous love song to street music, Once. You could of course attribute this simply to the comparatively bigger budget, but one wonders if Carney’s intent here was simply to mount a slick summer picture that can be consumed purely on face value. Something that looks good and sounds just fine. On these terms he has achieved and achieved well. However, when set beside the year’s other New York-based soulful songsmith story Inside Llewyn Davis, Begin Again feels like the decidedly lightweight product, one whose soundtrack is probably far less likely to become a hit in its own right.