Once More, With Feeling

John Carney’s Once (2007) was a lovely, intimate film, the story of two musicians whose romance played out artistically. Once is now a Broadway powerhouse, made a little tidier but no less affecting, and Carney is back with a movie that’s almost Once again: two drifting, lovelorn souls brought together through musical collaboration.

Begin Again, though, has slightly sharper edges, and its heartbroken heroine an occasionally tarter tongue. In an opening sequence that loops back on itself from different perspectives, worn-out, bitter music-biz pro Dan (a bedraggled Mark Ruffalo) gets kicked out of the company he co-founded — in front of his sullen daughter (Hailee Steinfeld), no less. He makes his sodden, despondent way to a bar at which a very reluctant Gretta (Keira Knightley) has been badgered into playing one of her songs. Dan hears something other than simple acoustic guitar and plaintive vocals; he imagines an entire arrangement, piano and drums and strings lifting the song into another realm. Dan introduces himself, and the resulting conversation essentially fills the rest of the film.

In some ways, Begin Again is a musical Cinderella story from another era, and its unsubtle critique of the music industry feels wedged in and already dated. But this Cinderella doesn’t want to be a pop-star princess, and she comes with baggage of her own: Her ex-boyfriend and songwriting partner (played by an unexpectedly likable Adam Levine) has left her for the big time. 

Both Dan and Gretta are essentially couch-surfing through rough patches of varying lengths. Their collaboration, more than their unconsummated attraction, is what matters, and what works magic, pulling in other musicians, making something new and making it in a new way.

Begin Again is a quiet charmer and not without missteps — a night-in-New York sequence feels borrowed from some other movie, its musical choices and images oddly generic — but it works thanks to Carney’s gift for complicated relationships, and his focus on the place where artistic and emotional connections layer on each other.  Everyone in this movie seems to be a little bit in love, and never more so than when they’re recording on a rooftop in the city, going gorgeously against the grain of how things are supposedly supposed to be done.

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