John Carney's "Begin Again" began as "Can a Song Save Your Life?"
Neither of these thudding titles does justice to this polished little gem of a street musical, one of the most joyously optimistic movies I've seen in recent years.
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"Begin Again"★ ★ ★ ½
Starring: Mark Ruffalo, Keira Knightley, Catherine Keener, Hailee Steinfeld, Adam Levine
Directed by: John Carney
Other: A Weinstein Company release. Rated R for language. 104 minutes
The plot and characters don't rack up many originality points -- on the romantic rebound, a poet/singer comes to the big city, falls in with a bunch of dysfunctional musicians, and the power of music compels them to become better versions of themselves.
Writer/director Carney gave us a similar work of unabashed sentiment in "Once," a 2006 release that not only won an Oscar for best song ("Falling Slowly") but received eight Tonys for the inevitable stage version, including best musical.
Carney has tapped his insider knowledge of the music industry to give "Begin Again" an edge of real-world authenticity to anchor its "let's put on a show!" (or "let's make a hit recording!") formula narrative.
The opening scene shows us a reluctant Brit named Greta (Keira Knightley) performing one of her songs at an open mic night.
Scene Two shows us the same opening scene, this time through the perspective of Mark Ruffalo's Dan Mulligan, a burnout recording executive in the audience. Invisible hands pick up the drum sticks and strum the guitar. Dan hears what the audience doesn't: a promising talent in need of some musical backup.
He persuades her to make a recording for him.
Dan's creative juices start things flowing. He hires a ragtag guerrilla band for Greta's torchy vocals and records her songs in the streets of New York, incorporating the ambient sounds of the city as musical backup.
Both Dan and Greta are relationship survivors. Greta has broken up with her cheating lover (Maroon 5's Adam Levine as a singer whose stagy beard grows in proportion to how much of a sellout he's become).
Dan hardly sees his estranged music journalist wife Miriam (Catherine Keener) or their disgruntled teen daughter Violet (Hailee Steinfeld).
Carney knows exactly what he's doing here and knows exactly what real people can't do. So when Violet reveals her inherited musical talents, there's no Judy Garland moment, just a teen performing on the level that a girl her age might actually achieve.
Carney also knows just how to maximize the effects of Knightley's beguiling smile, trusting eyes, Brit-accent and vulnerable presence in front of a camera. (The "Pirates of the Caribbean" franchise had no clue, as if that mattered.)
Knightley's chemistry with Ruffalo keeps the dramatic pings ponging in a refreshingly unpretentious tale all about the power of music to inspire, bond and mend.