Writer/director John Carney's 2013 film Begin Again is kinda like a spiritual sequel to his surprise 2007 hit Once. Again it's about struggling musicians who make a record, but Begin Again is bigger, flashier, more produced, and wonderful. It stars Mark Ruffalo as Dan Mulligan, a disgraced (by his own drunken behavior) producer looking for the next big find, and Keira Knightley as that find, a singer/songwriter named Gretta who has just recently broken up with her ascending rock star boyfriend Dave (Adam Levine). In addition to those 3 stars, the movie's cast also includes Catherine Keener, James Corden, Cee Lo Green, Hailie Steinfeld, and Mos Def. It's a terrific cast who all do great work, and Carney has also boosted the movie with music by super producer Gregg Alexander, whose music really helps the movie shine.
Ruffalo's Dan is awoken from his drunken stupor by the double whammy of being fired by the partner he started his record label with (Mos Def), and seeing Knightley perform a song at an open mic night in the bar he only went to to drink his troubles away. In a slightly ridiculous, but magical and effective sequence, Dan sees and hears the other instruments on the stage come alive and fill out the sound of Knightley's sparse song. A bow picks itself up and plays the cello, same for the violin, drums, and piano. It's a moment of dreamy whimsy in this otherwise earth bound movie, but it works and had me smiling wide.
Another of my favorite sequences is the breakup between Knightley's Gretta and Adam Levine's Dave. He comes back to NYC after a week long trip to LA with his record label, excited to show her a new song he wrote. Seeing as they're both songwriters, Gretta knows, without dialog (a wonderful choice by Carney), just by listening to the song and Dave's refusal to meet her gaze, that it's about another woman and not her. The subsequent moment when Gretta meets up with her friend Steve (James Corden) busking on the streets, and he stops in the middle of his song (not that anyone was around or even paying attention to him) to come grab her in a loving hug was a moment that brought tears to my eyes.
Every one of the cast members sells their characters quite well. I thought at first that Levine and Cee Lo might be out of their elements, but Cee Lo's character is meant to be a sort of larger than life hip hop star, so his not quite grounded persona actually works perfectly. Levine's inexperience as an actor strangely helps Dave feel a little more fake and self consciously dramatic. Especially in contrast to Knightley's wonderful and winning charisma. She has that same quality she has in her best work. I'm thinking of the equally underseen and terrific Seeking a Friend for the End of the World, another movie where she shares chemistry with a much older man, Steve Carrell in that case, Mark Ruffalo here. Other than the music, she and Ruffalo are the stars of the movie and it works because of their great performances.
Just like he did in Once, Carney is able to transmit the giddy feeling of being a musician playing music. The joy and chemistry between seemingly different people. This is probably because Carney himself is a musician, starting out as the bass player in the great Irish band The Frames (led, of course, by Once's Glen Hansard) before becoming a filmmaker. Knightley learned how to play guitar and sing for her role, both of which she does well and helps sell the music. Some others play their own music (Corden) while some fake it well (Steinfeld) and others you're not sure of (Ruffalo). As a guitarist it usually bothers me to see music movies because you can tell when people are faking it. Here, I was caught up in the terrific songs, charming performances, and just overall terrific movie.