John Carney, who directed Once in 2006, comes back with a similar story; but don’t expect similar styles. Set in New York rather than Dublin, with popular faces rather than unknown actors, Begin Again is an effort that just a few directors make themselves go through: Carney created the American version of his European success, and the result is rather satisfying.
Begin Again relates the story of Greta (Keira Knightley) who finds herself left alone in New York after her rock-star boyfriend Dave (Adam Levine) decided his new assistant would be a better fit. She randomly meets Dan (Mark Ruffalo), a former music-business executive, and the pair decides to create an album using New York streets as a large scale studio for their musical expression. With this new film, Carney renews with his previous theme of musical encounters. When focusing on the relationship between Dan and Greta, the similarities with Once are striking; the two of them evolve within broken lives, and sustain in day-to-day reality through music. But where the previous film offered raw portrait of unknown people, Begin Again echoes on a shiny music industry, and without dropping into the American Dream cliché, still steps back from the previous film, not only narratively, but also aesthetically and musically.
The duo formed by Keira Knightley and Mark Ruffalo manages to develop the characters equally, creating a real balance on screen, where both Greta and Dan’s lives, both of their stories are cared for. The characters look after one another in turns throughout, and whilst a romance is clearly on the way, the film avoids too-obvious an ending; it is neither a narrative tour-de-force, nor a tedious story twist, but just in the right lines and on the right tone of the film’s rom-com genre. The film never tries to be more than what it is, but whilst the feature develops, Carney takes the opportunity to somehow offer a commentary on the current music industry, and especially its online presence. Begin Again opens on Greta’s impromptu acoustic performance in a dark and noisy bar, we will later on learn that she actually is a music composer and used to write songs for Dave. One of them, ‘Lost Star’, is used as a symbol of their student life in Bristol, where they are depicted as a financially poor and yet happy, loving couple. Dave uses this song in his new album recorded in New York, but remixes it, makes it a hit, makes it loose its original melody, its original soul. Greta points it out: why making it a hit? Does an artist need to make music for others to like, or for him to express himself? The matter isn’t furthered in depth, but the film nicely raises the questions in the middle of a dialogue between the two. Similarly, Greta and Dan refuse the supremacy of major production companies. Internet and computing technologies make music not only more accessible to be broadcast and listened to, but also to be recorded. They are resources that should, ideally, allow artists to fight the stranglehold that majors keep on their work; Begin Again reaches these conclusions, but the sugarcoat of its narrative, genre and style is too thick to make it an unforgettable, magnificent piece of cinema reflection.
Begin Again (2014), directed by John Carney, is released in UK cinemas by Entertainment One, Certificate 15. Watch the trailer below: