Originally posted on the old Cinewise blog on 11th September 2014
Remember when you first watched Once? Remember how that made you feel? If you were lucky enough to watch it with a significant other, it will have undoubtedly left an indelible mark on you. If it hasn’t, then head over to another blog … right now.
Still here? Good.
I approached Begin Again with some trepidation as I knew I was going to compare every single thing about it with Once. I did. Great news is, John Carney’s follow-up holds up quite well. Bad news is the realisation that we may never see another film as heartfelt, honest, and beautiful like Once. But enough about Once, let’s talk about Begin Again.
If I haven’t made it clear enough that I really liked Begin Again, then let me re-iterate: Begin Again is probably the best love story of this year, after Her. It is cheerful. It fills you with hope. It soars above the clouds, then comes back down to earth to remind you that this is a story about people (not real people, but more of that later) and not about themes and subtext.
Mark Ruffalo plays Dan Mulligan, a drunk A&R man, who failed to sign a single artist in the last 7 years. He is battling for his job at the record company he set up with his best friend. He lives in a dilapidated bedroom by himself, having moved out of his house and his family a year ago (Catherine Keener in the very underwritten role of the wife and Hailee Steinfeld as the obligatory Moody Teenager). Keira Knightley plays Gretta, the English ex-pat who is about to go back home after breaking up with her soon-to-be-superstar singer boyfriend. Fate has it that Gretta plays a song she wrote in an open mic event – a pretty woeful performance – but Dan imagines how it will sound with a full backing band. He immediately knows this could be something huge. The scene where he imagines the song with an invisible backing band as he arranges it in his head is magical, one of the best scenes of the year so far. Ruffalo and Knightley are great here, he plays the shaggy former-hipster very well and she gets better with every film.
After convincing Gretta to record a full album, the pair try out recording at Dan’s ex-employer’s studios, but without a demo the studio won’t budge. So they decide to hire a few musicians and record it various outside locations in New York. The idea is ingenious, though Norwegian art metal band Ulver have done a similar thing in nordic forests.
John Carney follows a similar plot line to Once here and it works wonders. The ending, without giving away too much, is as satisfying as Once, but there are a few things I would have liked to change in the film. Adam Levine, who plays Gretta’s ex-boyfriend Dave, is distracting. He is just not a good actor and the flashback scenes with Gretta feel overly long and disturb the narrative flow somewhat. Another thing is that for a film that relies on music so much, the songs all merge into one radio-friendly adult indie pop-rock – except for Coming up Roses, nothing sticks to mind. Hint: that one was written by Glen Hansard, who wrote the songs in Once. See the pattern there? Another thing that Begin Again fails in comparison to Once is that these people feel too niche and reside in a world of New-York-set-romantic-comedy universe.
Maybe I am being a little unfair to Begin Again by constantly trying to compare it to Once. That’s a fair point, because on its own Begin Again is an accomplished and well-done romantic comedy and it will cheer you up immensely.