Though the music industry has undergone a sea change over the last decade, the goal for both major studios and artists remains the same: musicians want to write great songs and put them out into the world, and record labels want to make some money by helping them do it. That being said, these days, the line is sharply drawn between genuine songwriters and visionaries and corporate processed pop stars. Moreover, solo acts or groups no longer need the crumbling machine of the industry to get their work out there and recognized. The internet has more than enough avenues to turn overnight bedroom performers into the next blogosphere buzz act. A&R scouts are a dying breed. But for argument’s sake, you’ll need to pretend that world of major label nurturing, and the hunt for the next great thing still exists for "Begin Again."
Indeed, the very first scene of the movie plays into the classic dream any budding musician has had—at least in decades past. Called onstage to perform at an open mic night, the unassuming Greta (Keira Knightley) sings an intimate personal song of longing and love, mostly to scattered applause and dishes clattering at the bar. But one disheveled, drunken patron has heard every single note and then some, already imagining how her voice and acoustic guitar could be ornamented with additional instruments, into something truly amazing. Quite simply, he sees the promise in her work. And that man is Dan (Mark Ruffalo), and thank god he found her, because he’s had one helluva day.
The first act of the movie is heavily weighted by two extensive flashbacks, to highlight all the events that eventually found Greta and Dan crossing paths. For Dan, it was simply the result of a disastrous day where nothing had gone right. Roused out of drunken sleep, his ex-wife asks him to pick up his daughter Violet (Hailee Steinfeld). Jumping into his swanky old school Jaguar, he shakes off the hangover with cigarettes, and multi-tasks, listening to the latest batch of CDs of up-and-coming artists to consider for the successful record label he co-founded years ago. Uninspired, most of them get tossed out the window before he rolls up to Violet’s school, and he then takes her to a meeting at the office that he’s late for. But it’s clear he’s been hanging on to former glory. He hasn’t signed a new act in years, nor adapted to the changes in the industry, and before he knows it, he’s fired. And so, when he comes across Greta in a bar in New York City, it’s after an evening chasing his blues with the bottle.
As for Greta, she has a bit more history to her tale. She’s a Brit expat who met her boyfriend Dave (Adam Levine) at college and decamps to New York City with him when he lands a record deal, after one of the songs he recorded gets major placement in a hit movie. He’s soon caught up in a whirlwind of activity as his career begins to rise, and Greta is left behind to fend for herself in the big city. And as you might guess, Dave is tempted and strays, forcing Greta out on her own. Thankfully, she runs into a old pal (played by an engaging James Corden), and shacks up with him as she plots a return to the U.K. But that all changes the night she takes the stage.
After hearing her song, Dan does all he can to convince her to stay in the country just long enough to play for the label head of the company he used to work for. When that fails, he launches an even bolder plan: they’re going to record an entire album, live off the ground in the streets of New York with the sounds of the city providing the ambient texture. Dan calls in all the favors he can to get the low-budget record made (cue the Cee Lo Green cameo!) and before you know it, director John Carney is traveling over the same ground as he did with "Once," though the results are far less potent.
As you might surmise from the film’s formerly on-the-nose title, "Can A Song Save Your Life?", the story makes no mistake about the connective and emotionally healing power of music. But this time, the focus is spread across three thinly drawn relationships that seek closure and/or new beginnings thanks to the recording of Greta’s album: Dan and his estranged wife (Catherine Keener), Dan and Violet, and Greta and Dave. Oh yeah, then there’s Greta and Dan too, who share a bond in their mutual heartbreaks that brings them closer than just producer and star. But unfortunately, there is nothing especially unique about any of these fractured ties that you haven’t seen in other New York movies, and Carney’s film is felled by one more crucial failing: the songs just aren’t that good.
No matter what you thought about "Once," you left the theater humming "Falling Slowly," which also served as an anthem for everything that happened in that intimate film. But you’ll be hard pressed to remember a single tune here, with the handful of songs (sung competently, but not particularly passionately by Knightley) coming off as accomplished but still rather unremarkable indie orchestral-lite pop. They certainly don’t serve the narrative as powerfully as the songs in "Once" did, even when repeated frequently. And since the music doesn’t connect like it should, everything else that is underpinned in the story by these songs also doesn’t come together with the weight or power Carney surely intended.
But thankfully, "Begin Again" at least has an always watchable cast keeping things engaging. A particular pleasure, albeit all too brief, are the scenes between Ruffalo and Keener, with the two indie veterans selling an 18-year marriage that has gone through peaks and valleys yet still retains love and admiration with enjoyable ease. Corden is a pleasant surprise as Greta’s musician pal, and he earns some of the film’s biggest laughs. And while Knightley is good, she isn’t given much to work with, because Greta’s journey is never in doubt.
Offering little in the way of real stakes, we meet all the characters at their lowest point straight from the start, and unless Carney was planning on taking his picture to some dark places, it’s always clear that sunnier skies are ahead for all involved. And this predictability, combined with lukewarm, forgettable tunes and a slightly unfocused screenplay (which doesn’t benefit from credit reel scenes that nearly undo the entire motivation of everything in the movie), this a ‘Song’ that’s decent enough on a first listen, but won’t have you hitting replay immediately afterward. [C]
This is a slightly edited reprint of our review from the 2013 Toronto International Film Festival.