Most filmmakers add a soundtrack late in the process to supplement their story. For John Carney, it’s just the opposite.
The Irish director behind the Oscar-winning romance Once uses music as a starting point in Begin Again, allowing his characters to develop from their songs, which in turn are a reflection of their life experiences.
In the case of Dan (Mark Ruffalo) and Greta (Keira Knightley), it was a bittersweet, half-finished acoustic ballad in front of inattentive Manhattan bar patrons that prompted an unlikely connection between two vulnerable lost souls. That’s the launching point for Carney’s story, which then gives us some background on how each of them hit rock bottom.
He is a music executive whose alcoholism and erratic behavior caused a falling out with his longtime business partner (Yaslin Bey), as well as fractured the relationship with his estranged wife (Catherine Keener) and teenage daughter (Hailee Steinfeld). She is a songwriter trying to rebound emotionally from a volatile relationship to a pop star (Adam Levine) who suppressed her talent and then cheated on her.
In a moment of mutual desperation, Dan approaches Greta after her performance at the bar and tries to convince her to stay in the city and pursue a career under his tutelage. Lacking in resources, Dan uses his modest connections to record a demo by staging impromptu performances of Greta’s bittersweet tracks and incorporating ambient sounds throughout the city.
Carney’s mostly innocuous yet quietly poignant screenplay strains to be cute and crowd-pleasing, especially in its effort to neatly wrap up all of its melodramatic loose ends, primarily by way of a climactic rooftop jam session.
The film comes alive, however, when the focus is on the music. There’s a heartfelt authenticity to the production numbers — Knightley does her own singing — and the inclusion of such established talents as Levine, Cee-Lo Green, and Bey (a.k.a. Mos Def) in the cast doesn’t hurt, either.
Begin Again isn’t exactly provocative or profound, but instead is intended as a celebration of the power of songwriting, of untapped potential, and of the diverse musical styles on the streets of New York. As such, it plays a familiar but catchy tune.