Begin Again

'Once' redux in this new film from director John Carney with Keira Knightley and Mark Ruffalo

Begin Again


Written and directed by John Carney. Starring Keira Knightley, Mark Ruffalo, Hailee Steinfeld, Catherine Keener, Mos Def, James Corden, Aya Cash, Adam Levine, Raquel Toro.

Note: while the bland Begin Again seems to be the official title of this film per IMDb, the copy of the film I caught was titled Can a Song Save Your Life?; for additional confusion, the film is titled Love Song in Czech. 

Director John Carney scored a major indie hit back in 2007 with Once, the story of a down-and-out Dublin busker (played by Glen Hansard) and the Czech girl he falls in love with (Markéta Irglová). The low-key, on-the-fly filmmaking helped create a genuine feel for the characters that audiences really connected with; it was a real lightning-in-a-bottle film, which went on to win the Oscar for Best Original Song (for Hansard & Irglová’s Falling Slowly). 

In Begin Again, Carney has attempted to recapture some of that magic, armed with a star-studded cast and a much larger budget. It’s not a complete success, but I really liked most of this fun, breezy film, which is filled with some catchy indie-pop tunes and terrific New York atmosphere. For most of the running time, this is a pleasantly inoffensive experience that leaves a smile on your face. 

Then there’s the ending, which fails to resolve the story in a satisfactory way. Kudos to Carney for attempting something different and staying true to his vision, but while there’s a time and place for an ambiguous, unrealized ending in arthouse fare, it feels wildly out of place in this kind of Hollywood-ized fluff. 

Still, while the final scenes here rubbed me the wrong way, it’s not enough to ruin the rest of the film, which is likably good-natured and anchored in a pair of really appealing lead performances from Keira Knightley and Mark Ruffalo: they share some nicely understated chemistry while attempting to record a guerilla-style on-location album throughout a variety of open-air New York locations.

Let me backtrack: Ruffalo plays Dan Mulligan, a record executive who has hit the skids after his marriage to Miriam (Catherine Keener) dissolves and Dan moves out, leaving his teenage daughter Violet (True Grit‘s Hailee Steinfeld) behind. On one particularly bad day, he’s fired from the record company he founded by longtime partner Saul (Mos Def). 

That’s where the film’s original title – Can a Song Save Your Life? – comes into play. Nearing rock bottom, Dan finds himself inebriated at an open mic night where Greta (Keira Knightley) is egged onto stage by friend Steve (James Corden). Dan is so enchanted by Greta’s original song A Step You Can’t Take that he creates a studio accompaniment in his mind, imaginatively re-created for us as the instruments onstage begin to play themselves. 

Greta has her own backstory: she came to New York with musician boyfriend Dave (Maroon 5’s Adam Levine), who just signed a big record contract, but when he leaves for L.A., he leaves her for good, and she’s alone in New York. She plans to fly back to London the day after performing at the open mic, but Dan has big things in mind if she’ll just take a shot on him. 

Begin Again is at its best during the compilation of the outdoor album, with scenes that are infectiously giddy in their guerilla music-making. It helps that the songs – while nothing extraordinary – are pretty catchy and inoffensive (Knightley sings all her own material on the soundtrack). Unfortunately, most of the album scenes pass by too quickly in montage fashion; I could have used more of these, and a little less traditional storytelling. 

But Begin Again is a gleeful feel-good experience that is destined to please all but the most demanding viewers, even with the unsatisfying ending. It’s not Once, but this big-budget version – with a somewhat ironic message about staying true to your roots and not selling out – is a pleasant-enough ride. 

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