“Begin Again” Review: Songs On Your Playlist

Following his 2006 film Once, director-writer John Carney set out to create another musical story, Begin Again (2013), which details how two SOL people find a way to help each other, well, begin again. Yea, this description isn’t exactly the most inspiring, and honestly, neither is the trailer. (But hey, Mark Ruffalo; that’s my excuse.)

It’s a movie for music lovers, about music lovers, and I think the central ideas about love and family are better accepted if the viewer is in the mood to be swayed. I will say, however, that I thoroughly enjoyed all 104 minutes. The songs within leave you on an even keel, like you were told a feel-good story without being forced-fed clichéd characters’ ennui. My favorite scenes, in fact, are the ones where the most important dialogue is conveyed entirely by the subtext of the music.

Essentially, Carney didn’t make it too serious. I chuckled aloud more often than not, and most of it had to do with the acting.

Dan and Gretta dare to share each other’s playlists.

The stand-out performance for me was Mark Ruffalo (The Avengers, Shutter Island), who plays the once-revered record label founder Dan. His life, both professionally and personally, is a mess, and it isn’t until he meets Gretta (Keira Knightley from Pirates of the Caribbean, Pride and Prejudice, The Duchess) that he discovers a lucky chance to turn it around by backing the young singer/songwriter (but we’ll get to her in a minute).

Ruffalo immediately pulled me into Dan’s world, into the kind of man he is—picky, prone to alcohol, a bit sketchy, but ultimately, brilliant. And he did this with one solo scene in his car. He made Dan endearing, in a way I initially thought improbable, given the character’s tangled hobo-esque mop of hair and seemingly questionable hygiene.

See? Give him a sharpie-written sign, and there you go. Crazy, homeless guy.

Knightley was no slouch either, of course. She played Gretta, a devoted songsmith whose partner and beau Dave (singer Adam Levine from Maroon 5) brusquely leaves her behind after he makes it to the limelight. Lost, she intends to return to England, but is waylaid by Dan’s offer to produce her music.

However, unlike Ruffalo, Knightley didn’t seem to sink into her character as well. I may have been focusing too much on her physical movements (the way she holds her shoulders, the way she tries to smile without showing her bottom teeth, the way she laughs—they all scream Kiera Knightley to me, sorry).

Gretta and Dave after they hit it big with a NYC record label.

Plus, I’m thrown a little by her voice. Don’t get me wrong, the vocals are good and fit the half-folk, half-pop songs well, but I had trouble matching the breathy singing to Knightley’s regular timbre. It was just an odd little detail.

Anyway. In the end, it didn’t matter. I adored the music. Specially, “Lost Stars” (the ballad version, not the remix) is just one of those songs you can listen to while swinging on a hammock or something, staring at clouds in an azure sky. A close second is “Coming Up Roses,” made more charming when you watch the movie and see how Dan and Gretta put together backup musicians, outdoor sound, and spontaneous locations to produce their unique album.

Also worth mentioning are the supporting cast. Adam Levine (and that god-awful beard) delivered an emotive performance as Dave, as did Hailee Steinfeld (True Grit, Ender’s Game) as Dan’s daughter Violet, who both calls Dan out on his shit and loves him regardless of his separation from her mother. My favorite, though, was James Corden (Doctor Who, One Chance, Into the Woods), who played Gretta’s NYC friend Steve. He’s just a friggin’ teddy bear, truly.

If you don’t have time for the movie, take a listen to the music at least. Below is a lyric video for “Lost Stars,” and if you want more, mosey on over to the full album. (Or, you know, be cheap, like me and just add it to your Spotify playlist.)

Rating: A good sit-down afternoon movie about how people create music to communicate and how they can make each other stronger through shared talents and collaboration. It’s funny and charming and felt real. Very strong cast, appealing music. B.

ASV Villany Rating: Dan and Gretta get together to make the most addictive songs in human history, then use their fame and money to back the world’s crime lords and politicians. Unfortunately for them, they aren’t The Beatles, and the public is such a fickle ocean. Free music or not, I doubt there’ll be much damage. Well, hopefully. I – Inspired.

3 thoughts on ““Begin Again” Review: Songs On Your Playlist”

  1. Was a good movie!

    For me, it was a little gratifying to see Adam Levine kind of/sort of acknowledge the over-produced noise that his music has become (at least, that’s how I interpreted it.)

    And I agree on all your points except Keira Knightley. Mark Ruffalo, of course, was great–but he had nothing to prove. Much ado was made of Knightley when she received an Oscar nomination for P&P in 2006 (EIGHT years ago!) and has (arguably) fallen off the Hollywood map since.

    In my opinion, Knightley’s reaffirmed her position as a solid performer with this role. When she and Corden’s character are recording that music-message to Levine’s character I saw it all: grief for love lost, longing for the past, hatred for being wronged, vindication for being right, and excitement/fear to begin again. Layer after layer after layer. Credit Carney for writing the character, but Knightley locked that shit down

    Liked by 1 person

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