By Joan Ellis
There is nothing predictable about “Begin Again.”
If most movies follow the complications of relationships, this one has something quite different in mind. Writer/director John Carney wants instead to explore what triggers music in the people who create it. He wants to look at music as it is written by songwriters who are not imprisoned by contemporary fashion in the pop music world. No digitally processed tunes will do.
Greta (Keira Knightly) and Dave (Adam Levine) are in love and newly arrived in New York where Dave is riding the fast track to celebrity as a rock singer. As Dave sings his new song, we watch Greta’s expression turn to pain as she realizes he wrote it for another woman. It’s over for them, and Greta is alone in New York.
Steve (a very fine James Corden), an old guitar-playing pal from England, is leading the typically seedy life of barroom singing and invites Greta to sing one of the songs she has written. If the audience is uninterested, a former talent scout for a record label company Dan (Mark Ruffalo) loves what he hears. Dan – alcoholic, divorced and drifting – knows the songs she writes reflect pure emotion and proposes a partnership. She will write; he will market.
There’s a problem though. Greta has no interest whatsoever in fame or fortune. She writes songs just for her own pleasure. She suggests to Dan that they write music as they move through the various landmarks of Manhattan – the Central Park Lake boats, rooftops, alleys, subways. Greta writes; Dave improvises and collects the talent – a bass, a cello, a drummer and the outdoor sounds of the city. They layer the singers, instruments and the outdoor sounds in their music and each loves the sound they are making together.
Offstage, a nice subplot unfolds when Dave returns hoping to reunite with Greta but Greta sees he has turned her song into a groupie hit, a sure sign he will never understand her. Will Dan return to his family? For a high point in trust, watch two good people share their playlists.
Keira Knightly gives a convincing, understated performance as Greta. We believe her as a grounded, happy songwriter carrying a strand of loneliness that surfaces in her songs. Mark Ruffalo creates an appealing portrait of a drinker in a low spot who knows suddenly that he has the tools to help Greta. James Corden is just right as the good old pal, and Adam Levine has a nice shot at showing his rock chops while remaining unconscious to Greta’s relationship to music.
As the credits fade, you’ll probably wish director Carney had made us smile by wrapping things up neatly, but he’s more interested in why people write songs than in who they love.
Don’t get stuck in wondering what’s going to happen. It’s enough to ask, “How is music created?” Then just sit back and watch with pleasure as the songs take shape.
Joan Ellis’ address on the Internet, which contains her review library, is JoanEllis.com.