Begin Again

Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 07/06/14 16:05:28

"Like an album you're compelled to play again right away."
5 stars (Awesome)

I wonder if there's something about making a movie about popular music that puts filmmakers into a zone where they don't need to work in quite so straight a line - they're already thinking in terms of coming back to the chorus at one level, so they can do the same thing with the story. For example, one of the most impressively constructed and edited movies I saw last year was "The Broken Circle Breakdown", and while "Begin Again" is roughly 180 degrees away from that emotionally - this is a spectacularly joyous movie - it shares that movie's willingness to forgo the straight line if that's what it takes to hit the right note.

For example, it starts with a friend dragging Gretta Jones (Keira Knightley) up on stage during an open mic night, and while most of the audience barely notices, one barfly stands up and applauds loudly. Then things jump back to the start of the day, showing how record company founder Dan (Mark Ruffalo) got there, via disastrous booze-addled visits with his teenage daughter (Hailee Steinfeld) and business partner Saul (Yasiin "Mos Def" Bey). She eventually agrees to work with Dan rather than fly home to Bristol, and along the way, she remembers her own path, from arriving in New York with her rising-star boyfriend Dave Kohl (Adam Levine) to the relationship falling apart while he's on tour.

That song at the bar serves as the chorus for the first section of the movie, and writer/director John Carney plays into that, making sure we hear it differently each time: Initially, it fights with crowd noise, while the second time through Dan and the audience hear the song as it could be, with other musicians backing Gretta but not overwhelming her. It's kind of brilliant how well Carney uses this structure - as much as that initial version reflects Gretta's current state of mind, it also sets the tone for Dan's final fall from grace, while Dan's ability to see Gretta's potential as a singer/songwriter is a great transition into seeing things from the optimistic young woman's perspective. It's also a slick way to show those of us who don't really know what a record producer does - and probably consider label executives and A&R men sort of parasitic given the way the industry has evolved in the digital age - why someone like Dan is actually still quite valuable.

That somewhat loose plot where the telling is surprisingly dense continues as Dan hatches an idea to not just make a demo, but record an entire album live on the streets of New York. Carney does not set it up a series of obstacles that need to be overcome - in fact, Dan's financial difficulties seem to fade into the background - but a backdrop that lets the audience watch Dan and Gretta quietly piece their lives together as the album keeps things moving. It's maybe a bit surprising that Carney doesn't do more to replicate his success with Once by using songs to mark time, but instead goes for montages and often uses characters listening to a song rather than singing it to make his point: Watch Gretta as she listens to Dave's songs; it's as emotional as any of her own numbers.

Keira Knightley proves a pretty capable singer, and it's neat that she doesn't seem to be kicking it into a higher gear for the songs - she is just Gretta, full of optimism, idealism, and love for music even if her relationship with Dave has left her a little personally dinged up. It's great how she and Carney don't try to overcomplicate or diminish Gretta; not only is there not a hidden side to her, but there are a couple of scenes with this keen awareness that she's playing against a man who finds her attractive, even if the script pivots because the movie isn't really about that. One is Mark Ruffalo's Dan, of course, doing a great job of evolving while still being the same disheveled guy, with the shadow of his former brilliance just peeking out from underneath his sloppy impulsiveness. They've got great chemistry with each other and everyone else in the cast, most notably James Corden as Gretta's best friend in New York and Hailee Steinfeld & Catherine Keener as Dan's daughter and ex-wife. Adam Levine and his increasingly ridiculous facial hair do an impressive job of making Dave kind of ridiculous but not a cartoonish villain.

It's potentially easy to overlook how great all these supporting characters are - they've got even subtler arcs than the leads - especially because Carney tends to give them their best, most defining moments almost as background bits: Watch Hailee Steinfeld be tremendously nervous about playing guitar on one of the albums's tracks, and Catherine Keener even further in the background of that scene. A scene where James Corden's Steve frets over Gretta in tremendous detail says a lot, and the scene where Dan introduces the band's string section means that the audience knows who those siblings are are even though they're just playing violin & cello for the rest of the movie. Bits of detail like that abound in other places - one flashback lays a lot of groundwork for who Gretta & Dave are just by letting the audience see their teeth, while there's impressive depth to how Carney and cinematographer Yaron Orbach shoot the movie, with motion in the background helping to establish a rhythm along with Gregg Alexander's score.

This continues right through the scenes playing aside the end credits, which hold to the story's principles while preserving the sense of fun that runs throughout the whole movie - to the point where the movie having principles doesn't ever seem to wear it down. It's seldom a straight line, but it's a fun journey, one of the summer's biggest delights.

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