“Music can turn banalities into beautiful, effervescent pearls,” Mark Ruffalo’s character tells Keira Knightley’s as they perch on a park bench midway through Begin Again. An emotional choice of words, perhaps, but an accurate representation of the sentiment that permeates every scene in the film, given that its original title was Can a Song Change Your Life? I wouldn’t say Begin Again’s tunes are quite that powerful (I’m actually having trouble recalling their melodies now); however they do have a transporting effect within the story’s context, making it a lot easier to like the film while watching it than when you’re thinking about it later.
I’ll admit up-front that I haven’t seen director John Carney’s debut film Once*, which apparently deals with similar subject matter. The comparisons ricocheting around critics’ circles lamenting Begin Again’s less innocent, more manufactured nature are therefore lost on me; for better or worse, I watched this one with eyes un-tinted by the rosy shadow of its predecessor.
Begin Again opens with Dan (a pitch-perfect Ruffalo), a once-flourishing audio label executive turned borderline alcoholic, deadbeat dad kicked out of the house by his wife (Catherine Keener), and general sad case. Sick of sifting through starry-eyed pop princesses and lame rock wannabes—“monosyllabic teenagers” as he refers to them—he hasn’t signed anyone new in seven years, leading to his ousting from the very indie record company he helped found.
Half a drink away from a total meltdown and slumped at a local bar, he's suddenly roused from his bourbon-induced haze by the acoustic strums of a guitar and a voice with the heart he's been searching for.
It’s the voice of Gretta (Knightley), a British singer-songwriter who’s in her own doldrums after Dave (a surprisingly sensitive Adam Levine), the boyfriend she followed to New York when he got a record deal, not only cheats on her, but—maybe an even greater offense—mangles the wistful ballad she wrote into a pop-ified remix for his own album.
As Dan and Gretta bond over their downtrodden states and their shared chagrin at the decline of originality in music, Dan convinces Gretta to take him up as her producer in what evolves into a platonic-with-room-for-interpretation relationship. When they can’t book a venue to record a demo, they take matters into their own hands, using the five boroughs as their studio in an ode to New York City as well as an unequivocal refusal to serve as another cog in the industry machine.
Thus, Begin Again embarks on a journey to celebrate the cathartic capabilities of songs unprocessed by commercial interests. From the local artists and neighborhood kids recruited as accompanists to the subway platform soundstages and the iPhone duct-taped to a tripod as a makeshift microphone, it's the music version of the organic movement. Doing all of her own singing, Knightley’s voice has an unexpectedly unique timbre that’s sweet and simple; honest even as the lyrics she’s singing try a bit too hard to hit that indie eccentricity.
At times during its resolute mission to adhere to the authenticity theme, Begin Again ironically gets in its own way. Dan bemoans the wittingly constructed persona of Bob Dylan while Gretta's sitting next to him in her own prototypical “starving artist” getup of grubby-chic cropped pants, an oversized linen sweater and a scruffy ponytail. Despite their reputations as indie scene darlings, names as prominent as Ruffalo and Keener somewhat deflate the film’s touting of an art-house spirit. And what more apt—or overwrought—setting for a movie about indie musicians than New York, one of the world's capitals when it comes to street performers and bar crooners with nothing but pockets full of dreams intertwined in their guitar strings? It’s an all-too familiar tune.
And yet, you can’t help but want to hum along to this tribute to the city, whether it’s Gretta singing her own material on a skyscraper's rooftop, Sinatra belting out “Luck Be a Lady” as Gretta and Dan traipse through Times Square, or Dooley Wilson’s rendition of "As Time Goes By” played against that glittering, inimitable Manhattan skyline.** Corny as the scene is, it’s easy to get swept up in the songs that frame it, lending truth to Dan’s notion that the right music can indeed brighten, transform, and imbue meaning into mundane moments.
Begin Again’s intentions are earnest: a call to put meaning back into music that seems to recently have strayed into superficial stadium pop, and a reminder of how songs that avoid that fate can make us feel. It’s a noble undertaking, not without a few beats that fall flat here and there. But set aside your jaded filters for less than two hours; you’ll see that the film does, more often than not, hit the sweet spot between naive mawkishness and cynical realism to achieve a lightly fairy-dusted, uplifting narrative. Begin Again may not serenade you into submission, but it’s an easy listen nonetheless.
*I know, I know. I'll get to it.
**which really isn't helpful for someone like me, for whom getting New York out of her system is a daily struggle.