The popularity of a movie often tempts its film-makers to repeat the same formula in their subsequent projects in the hopes that they will replicate the success of their previous hit. That appears to be the motive behind musical drama Begin Again — director John Carney’s revisit to the stylings of Once, the 2007 film that impressed audiences and critics alike. This time, however, the experience has been stripped of pretty much everything that made his breakthrough effort special.
The movie revolves around Gretta (Keira Knightley), a young singer reeling from her breakup with musician Dave (Adam Levine), who strays as soon as his career takes off. Heartbroken and dejected, she reluctantly takes the stage at an open mic night, where she is spotted by troubled record executive Dan (Mark Ruffalo), the co-founder of an independent record label. Blown away by her potential, Dan offers to help Gretta land a record deal. But instead of coming up with a demo, the duo eventually sets out to work on a live album in New York City, recording each song outdoors at a different location.
Along the way, the struggling songwriter and disgraced producer try to sort out the various fractured relationships in their lives, with Gretta seeking closure on her breakup with Dave, and Dan trying to connect with his estranged wife (Catherine Keener) and daughter (Hailee Steinfeld).
Corny to its core, Begin Again fails to exude the sincerity that is necessary to elevate its premise into something memorable. Its most glaring flaw lies in the fact that the very authenticity its characters claim to seek in their music is missing in the movie itself. It also doesn’t help that the run-off- the-mill indie pop tunes it tries to pass off as exceptional are, in reality, disappointingly forgettable. Passion — the very thing that should be the driving force behind the music — is sorely lacking in the songs. And while Knightley is lovely, she is completely unbelievable as the singer-songwriter unwilling to compromise on the authenticity of her craft, which makes it hard for viewers to be invested in her journey. Compared to the very real talent in the actual indie scene, both the film’s protagonist and its music seem unremarkable.
That said, the cast, on the whole, is very likeable (possibly with the exception of Levine, who could have been replaced by just about anyone else and it would have hardly mattered). Knightley is (perhaps overly) delightful, despite being miscast Ruffalo exudes scruffy charisma and Keener is engaging, making her scenes with Ruffalo the most affecting parts of the film.
Carney does apply some interesting touches to the storytelling (particularly in the flashbacks towards the beginning, and how Dan visualises Gretta’s song when he first hears her sing), but the film fails to capture the magic of the significantly more organic Once or create compelling character portraits like the far superior Inside Llewyn Davis did not too long ago. There is nothing unique about the very clichéd, splintered relationships the film’s protagonists are trying to heal, but, to its credit, the film handles the chemistry between its two leads with grace and doesn’t lead them down the predictable path. Overall, Begin Again isn’t nearly as genuine as it wishes it were, and its lack of plausibility and mediocre soundtrack make it far less compelling than it could have been.
Recommended movies for music fans
A Dublin busker (Glen Hansard) and a Czech immigrant flower girl (Markéta Irglová) come together to make music in John Carney’s acclaimed Once, which has also spawned a successful stage musical.
Propelled by an Academy Award-winning performance by Jeff Bridges, Scott Cooper’s adaptation of Thomas Cobb’s 1987 novel follows the story of a washed-up country music singer-songwriter, whose relationship with a young journalist (Maggie Gyllenhaal) inspires him to turn his life around.
Inside Llewyn Davis
The Coen brothers’ latest drama Inside Llewyn Davis is a skillfully crafted and compelling case study of a folk singer (Oscar Isaac) who is struggling for success and marred by a series of self-inflicted misfortunes.
Sameen Amer is a Lahore-based freelance writer and critic. She tweets @Sameen
Published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, October 19th, 2014.