Director John Carney ("Once") has "once again" delved into the indie music scene -- this time landing in New York City rather than Dublin. "Begin Again" has a similar feel to his 2006 romance between two singer/songwriters in Ireland, but he spins it by bringing in the British girlfriend of a singer/songwriter who learns to find her voice while dealing with their breakup.
What is essentially a love letter to New York, the film plays with the story's timeline as we open with an indie singer named Steve (James Corden) who is performing in a NYC bar. He convinces his friend Gretta (Kiera Knightly) to come up and perform one of her latest songs. She does so reluctantly, and it doesn't go well. But a music executive named Dan (Mark Ruffalo) sees something in her and tells her he wants to make a record with her.
Cut to earlier in the day where we see that Dan is most likely an alcoholic, is separated from his wife (Catherine Keener) and trying to navigate a relationship with his 15-year old daughter Violet (Hailee Steinfeld). As he goes about his day, he is let go at as an executive at his own label, fights with his estranged wife, and finds himself at a bar which is where he spots Gretta. And while Gretta's benign song doesn't seem to be a hit with the bar crowd, Dan sees something different -- imagining a bigger arrangement and seeing how lush and rich he could make the song. It's a clever scene, and an interesting look into the mind of a music producer.
Ultimately, Gretta says she'll "think about it" but she's one of those bohemian songwriters that doesn't want to work with the corporate machine. So when Dan suggests they make the album outside at various locations around the city, she is intrigued. But as she decides whether or not to take that plunge, we once again circle back a few days where we see her relationship with a singer named Dave (Adam Levine of "Maroon 5" fame) and the inevitable disintegration of it. This leads her to her friend Steve's apartment which then leads to the bar where she sings her song and is discovered by Dan.
It is here where the film finally is set in linear motion and we see how all these characters play together. It's an compelling look at the making of a record, the price of fame, and the trials of being in relationships with people involved in a similar industry. The characters are fresh, the world is something we don't see all that often, and the making of Gretta's record is inspired. All of this makes the film go down fairly easily, despite some missteps.
What "Begin Again" seems to be is a studio film created specifically to be a more Hollywood version of Carney's previous film which was a bit more gritty and natural. It's got some romance, it's got hipster indie music, and it has an insider's view of the music industry -- just like "Once." But here, everything seems to be a bit more programmed. That doesn't make this film bad; it just has a bit of a polish that shows at the seams. What I appreciate about the film, however, is that it doesn't go down the familiar rom-com checklist of tropes. In fact, the film isn't so much a romantic comedy as it is just a dramedy about the music business and those involved in it. There is always the threat of Dan and Gretta falling for each other -- and, to be fair, there is a dance that the two characters do -- but it would be too easy to go there, and thankfully Carney steers clear of it while also addressing it.
"Begin Again" has lovely performances and a fresh script that makes it watchable and entertaining. The characters are all likeable in their own ways even when they are screwing up. The music is fun (although it's not quite as amazing as the characters in the film think it is, but that's a small quibble). And who knew Knightly could sing? I mean, she's not the next Alicia Keys, but she has that indie folk-pop voice that is popular these days.
Levine is competent here in his first acting role. It takes him a bit to warm up, but he does a nice job and you are able to separate his rock-star persona with the character. But it is Ruffalo that shines as usual. Always a great actor, he does terrific work here again making a somewhat unlikeable guy, likeable. It's a careful dance he has to do, but he pulls it off winningly.