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Review: Begin Again

July 28, 2014

By John Corrado

★★★ (out of 4)

Begin Again Poster

Among my biggest regrets of last year’s TIFF was missing the appealingly titled Can a Song Save Your Life?, which Harvey Weinstein quickly acquired for a hefty price tag.  Now that same film has arrived in theatres under the new name Begin Again, and I’m happy announce that it was worth the wait.

Some will inevitably accuse Begin Again of being predictable and sentimental, but this is the sort of nice movie that you can see with a group of friends and all leave the theatre smiling.  Opening a few weeks back, the film is still playing in limited release.

The film starts at an intimate club, with Steve (James Corden) convincing his friend Gretta (Keira Knightley) to get up on stage to perform a song that she has just written.  As she plays the guitar and sings about her struggles with depression, Dan (Mark Ruffalo) watches her from the audience, clearly affected by the music.

We flashback to see that Dan is a music executive who has just been sacked from his job at an independent record company and is struggling with addiction, desperately trying to reconnect with his teenaged daughter (Hailee Steinfeld) and estranged ex-wife (Catherine Keener).  But then he hears this song that changes his life.

We then flashback again to find out that Gretta is new to Manhattan, a struggling singer and songwriter who is still hurt from the fallout 0f her relationship with rising pop star Marco (Adam Levine), who used to be her closest collaborator before rising to the top.  Dan agrees to produce an album for Gretta, but without a studio to work with, they decide to record the songs on the fly around New York, creating a love letter of sorts to the city.

I’m not saying this is a flawless film.  I think there are a few problems with the narrative structure, and not all of the side characters are completely fleshed out.  The choice to frame the concluding scenes over the end credits, after a very nice fade to black, also feels strange and a bit tacked on.  As a whole, Begin Again doesn’t reach the same intimacy as director John Carney’s breakout musical Once, or the quiet power of that film’s Oscar-winning song “Falling Slowly.”  But this is certainly a worthy followup to that 2007 gem and another loving celebration of music.

Because in its best moments, Begin Again really starts to sing.  There is a vibrant energy to their musical performances around the city, with every instrument and sound working together to make something complete, whether it’s kids playing in an alley or the sound of traffic in the background.  I really like the idea that music can make even the most banal moments take on new meaning, and one of the best scenes comes when Gretta and Dan walk together through the streets of New York at night just sharing their playlists, with the songs providing the perfect soundtrack for everyone walking by.

These two characters help and change each other in unexpected ways, but it’s actually refreshing that their friendship isn’t forced into the direction of a romantic relationship.  They are just two broken people helping each other get back up.  Mark Ruffalo is one of the most natural actors currently working, and he turns in another winning performance as a flawed character who still manages to be likeable, despite his struggles with addiction.  Keira Knightley also does nice work, really showing off her impressive range as both an actor and singer, even learning to play guitar for the role.

I can’t stress enough how nicely Begin Again comes together.  The film’s charms completely worked on me, and I thoroughly enjoyed spending 104 minutes in the company of these people.  The original songs are catchy and well written, with several highlights including “Tell Me If You Wanna Go Home” and the big showstopper “Lost Stars.”  Put simply, Begin Again is a feel good film that totally won me over.

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