‘I’ ON CULTURE
I was pleasantly surprised by Begin Again. It is an art house kind of movie, and it has hidden there most of the summer, finally coming to some of the larger theaters. It was advertised as a romantic comedy, and when I saw that the stars were Keira Knightly and Mark Ruffalo, I was worried. He’s old enough to be her father. But the romance involved is mainly with music. John Carney, the director, clearly loves music and lets it show in this gentle, charming film that just might win some awards.
Dan (Ruffalo) is a former great music producer who has fallen apart because of a collapsed marriage to Miriam (Catherine Keener). He is alienated from his daughter Violet (Hailee Steinfeld) because of his absence. Drunk, he gets fired from his job as a music publisher even though he had been one of the partners. He staggers into a bar and hears British singer Gretta (Knightly) sing to a not wildly enthusiastic audience. But he hears something in the music and begs her to record with him, even though he admits he no longer actually has a job.
Gretta, who had planned to return to England the following day, having been emotionally crushed when her longtime boyfriend Dave (Adam Levine) breaks up their relationship as his career begins to move forward. She moved into the apartment of old friend Steve (James Corden) until she can leave. Steve gets her to come with him to the bar to hear him sing and gets her to sing, setting up the main part of the story.
The film focuses on the creation of music as Dan and Gretta match their musical visions. And the music scenes are magical. There is an interesting scene in the bar as Dan imagines a musical background for Gretta’s music. Then a beautiful one where the two share their playlists, listening to Sinatra and then Stevie Wonder together as they wander through New York City. Watching them dance together in the middle of a dance club to their own music while everyone else is moving to something else was a real joy. There is also a magical scene on a rooftop where a thrown-together band is joined by Dan, who it turns out had played bass guitar, and finally his daughter, who it turns out is a superb guitarist. That one scene, joyous both in its music and the clear coming together of a formerly destroyed family, is worth the price of admission.
The nicest element of the film is that it doesn’t push the romance, between the stars. Fine acting makes it clear that the leads have feelings for each other, but forcing the issue would have distorted the point. Each has a loving destiny, both have been betrayed, and they can act as catalysts without having the usual mandatory tryst.
The cast is excellent. Ruffalo, the rock on which the film centers, manages to seem both capable and messed up at the same time. Despite obvious flaws, the audience can relate to him and root for his success. Knightly, far better known for historical and costume movies, is fine as Gretta and even does her own pretty good singing. Levine is an excellent singer and does well as a self-centered jerk. Corden plays the best friend really well. I would like to see him in larger parts. I have always enjoyed Keener, and she comes across really well. Steinfeld is one of our best young actresses and manages to take a part that could have been nothing more than a stereotype and make it really interesting. Her character has an exchange with Knightly about boys that in a few sentences explains how women are always emotionally far ahead of men.
This is a sweet film that features the music, really interesting characters and New York City as backdrop. In some ways, it harks back to the old “let’s put a musical on” movies that were so popular way back when, but it has a modern edge and a kind of world-weariness that we have come to expect. The real love here is for the music, but it clearly also shows how people can come together through their love for music to better understand and care for each other. You might really like the film. Catch it before it disappears.