Published July 4, 2014 for the film review site I created, Crowd vs. Critic. Each film is reviewed twice, once from the Crowd perspective for its entertainment value (Popcorn Potential) and once from the Critic perspective for its Artistic Taste.
Gretta and Dave: the music-making dream couple who write songs for each other for Christmas and collaborate on lyrics over the piano. After doing this for five years, Dave’s (Adam Levine) contribution to a film soundtrack catches the eye of a New York producer, and the two fly across the Pond to see where it may take his career. More and more, Gretta (Keira Knightley) finds herself wandering the streets alone while Dave’s record label posse surrounds him in the studios. When he returns from a trip to LA with a different sound, the two realize their music and lives have little in common anymore, and Gretta moves out.
On the same day, Dan (Mark Ruffalo) loses his position at the record label he founded with the hope of nurturing artists in their craft and career. A washout with his ex-wife (Catherine Keener) and tweenage daughter (Hailee Steinfeld), he only shows fragments of his former Grammy-winning glory. When he stumbles upon Gretta singing of her crumpled affections, a drunken vision of her potential provides him a whiff of unexpected optimism. With his industry know-how and her unpolluted talent, they team up to deliver their vision for an album set in the city streets.
Begin Again’s characters fight to stand above their individual rock bottoms, but the movie’s buoyant hopefulness doesn’t abandon them down there, even if their circumstances remain bleak. There’s something about music that has that quality— as Dan points out, it pulls vitality out of the most mundane parts of life. Like last year’s Twenty Feet From Stardom, these harmonies and melodies are composed of joy even when there are more reasons to give up singing than to continue.
And what harmonies and melodies they are. Knightley’s woodwind-like pipes croon her vulnerable songstress’s delicate lyrics like the best of those in the laidback, imprecise indie genre, while Billboard chart veteran Levine carries the pop tunes even better than you might expect. Although his distinct vocals are inseparable from his role as Maroon 5’s frontman, these songs give him a wider range to showcase than his real life band’s string of similar-sounding hits.
Although the world has made it clear it loves watching robots smash other robots while stuff blows up in the background, perhaps that’s what makes this movie all the more refreshing. The robots might give exactly what people want for summer because that’s exactly what they expect, but Begin Again gives audiences a story and characters to invest in and something they want to take with them from the theatre. Begin Again doesn’t hope for a $100 billion box office total, nor does it need it. But for those tired of the same old-same old summer fare, Begin Again provides a story and soundtrack worth far more than its ticket price can communicate.
POPCORN POTENTIAL: 8/10
How ironic is it that Dave’s over-produced version of “Lost Stars” leads off the soundtrack and trailers for Begin Again? Although it’s a catchy song, it represents much of what the film criticizes and seems to be an attempt to draw in the casual pop music fans our heroine Gretta would detest. One might counter the film is catering to independent music junkies who grovel at the feet of unheard artists until they become well-known, but the earnestness of Begin Again proves it’s not pandering. Ironic marketing aside, Begin Again is a simple, sweet, satisfying story about heartbreak, artistry, and starting all over to find yourself.
The film snapshots the music industry’s current flux state, and asks questions about how we create, record, distribute, and respond to music. Dave chooses the traditional label route and hopes for fans and a fortune, while the creative process trumps the financial payoff for Gretta. Perhaps they’re both valid ways to pursue the art, but they can’t coexist, which is why Dan struggles to match his artistic visions with aspirations for leading a record label.
This story’s heartbeat comes from the performances. I’m used to seeing Keira Knightley as a dame in a corset and other period costumes, but she wears high-waisted slacks well, too. Gretta may not be as sultry as some of Knightley’s other roles, but she’s more relatable. Ruffalo continues the impeccable casting, and Steinfeld makes me excited for the next generation of Hollywood to start taking top billing. And though I had my reservations about Levine, even he holds up his end of the deal. Knowing his background makes Dave Kohl almost a strange (yet spot-on) parody of his real-life fame. (Adding his Voice co-star Cee Lo Green to the cast only contributes to that.) He turns what could have been a one-dimensional version of every talented jerk we’ve ever known into one of the most complicated, memorable characters.
The story also owes credit to the soundtrack. With lyrics more thoughtful than many musicals, characters like Dave have more room to grow and the story can explore more questions than it answers. That’s not surprising when you remember writer and director John Carney also helmed 2006’s Once. I recommend pulling up the soundtrack on Spotify after watching—the story resonates more fully when you have more time to delve into its music. Then get ready to press repeat, because once you finish your first listen of the breathtaking melodies, you’ll be ready to begin again.
ARTISTIC TASTE: 9/10
Photo credits: BeginAgainfilm.com