From John Carney, the writer and director of Once, comes Begin Again – a spiritual follow up to the acclaimed (and Oscar winning) 2006 romantic musical drama. Like his former work, Begin Again focuses on music as something that can represent a moment in your life. In Once, it was about bringing two people together and creating music that celebrated their love; using music to tell their story and in return, creating one of the most compelling music soundtracks ever compiled.
It’s something that mirrored real life, with the pair already musical collaborators and very much in love. But not long after the film was released, the romance ended. Markéta met and fell in love with someone else. It was over. The crazy period that followed the success of Once and the unexpected demand for all things Swell Season (their real world band) proved too much for their relationship, and that was that. It would be hard to imagine that this struggle with fame, that this end of a romance, didn’t end up inspiring Begin Again. In many ways, it is a movie about – spoiler alert – “the break up album”.
Moving from the streets of Dublin to the streets of New York, the movie stars Mark Ruffalo and Keira Knightley as two unlikely companions. But it’s not in the romantic way that you might expect from the film’s poster or bylines… it would be easier, rather, to compare it to Lost in Translation, where Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson (funnily enough the original actress cast in Keira Knightley’s role), have a fondness in one and other that helps them through a particularly difficult period in their lives. Hell, if karaoke counts, they even make music of their own in Coppola’s much loved film.
Rather than walk us through a typical romance, our two leads go on a journey of self-discovery, all through the power of – you guessed it – music! Where Glen and Markéta worked together on music to represent their love in Once, Ruffalo – playing a recently separated father, alcoholic and fired A&R executive – “discovers” Knightley performing at a bar while on a bender. Feeling inspired for the first time in memory, he goes on to convince and help her make a record.
Like the recent release Frank, much of the film focuses on the creation of this record, and it’s here that we find some of the film’s most unique and enjoyable moments, as Ruffalo (“Dan”) brings together a group of musicians – in a hilarious manner I might add – to perform and record on the streets of New York City and make a DIY album with Knightley’s Gretta on the lead vocals. Impressively, and true to Carney’s nature, that’s actually Knightley on the vocals, too. Though I found it difficult to be convinced it was her as many points of the film.
The album they create not only serves as an opportunity for Ruffalo to “find himself” again, but more importantly, gives Gretta the opportunity to move on from her ex – played impressively by Maroon 5’s Adam Levine. With turns from Mos Def, Cee Lo Green and many more well known musicians, it’s a film drowning in musicality and bravado.
The cinematography is wonderful, and the performances all do their part to tell what is ultimately a touching and compelling story. After all, despite their undeniable chemistry and fondness for one and other, it’s less about our two leads and more about the lives that brought them to this point, and the questions of what might come next. Knightley, who some might find frustrating in her more exaggerated roles, does well as Gretta, playing the role with well balanced class – though she struggles to match Ruffalo when he’s at his best. Some minor gripes about the narrative and its length keep this from being anything more than the score it’s given, but ultimately, this is a stand out film.
So, hoping I haven’t spoilt too much of the film for you here, this isn’t the film you expect it to be, and it’s refreshing for being so. Indeed, Carney knows what we might expect and throws it on its head almost immediately, playing with the concept of time, the virtues of love and loss and in the end, creating a wonderful soundtrack along with it.
Yes, this is a film about a break up album – but perhaps it’s more than just something inspired by the end result of his previous subjects – represented here by Knightley and Levine. There’s also the loss of Carney’s brother at play here – Jim – who the film is dedicated to. Ruffalo’s Dan is a character inspired by his late brother and after the film you have to wonder if this film was as much a cathartic experience for Carney as it was for the characters in the film. Judging by Ruffalo’s impressive performance, something tells me it was. And something tells me that no matter who you are, you’ll find something to relate to within this gem of a film… After all, we’ve all had to “Begin Again” at some point in our lives.
Review Score: FOUR STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
Begin Again is in Australian Cinemas now.