Review: Begin Again (2014)
Director: John Carney
Screenwriter: John Carney
Cast: Mark Ruffalo, Keira Knightley, Adam Levine, Hailee Steinfeld, James Corden, CeeLo Green, Mos Def & Catherine Keener
Runtime: 104 min // Certificate: 15
There’s a stark contradiction at the heart of Begin Again, the new film from Once director John Carney, that stops it from ever really making a heartfelt connection with its audience. As every English Literature student’s favourite playwright once wrote, “if music be the food of love, play on”. It’s a mantra that Begin Again tries so desperately to imitate, what with its constant reassurances that music will make everything okay in the end, yet because its approach is so pedestrian, predictable and, at times, infuriatingly preachy, the film exudes a cynicism that doesn’t match its apparent feel-good mentality.
The film follows a down-on-his-luck record producer, Dan Mulligan (Ruffalo; The Avengers) and an English singer-songwriter, Gretta (Knightley; Never Let Me Go) as they attempt to recover from recent heartache by working on a concept album together. With the help of Gretta’s best friend Steve (Corden; One Chance) and Dan’s estranged daughter Violet (Steinfeld; 3 Days to Kill), the two of them bond over a mutual love of music and a mutual experience of heartache at the hands of lovers who have betrayed them. As the title suggests, they’ve both made mistakes in the past but their ultimate goal is to “begin again” by creating an album of which they can both be proud.
If it all sounds a little light that’s because it is. The film is a curious combination of pretentious and good-natured, which means it can be a bit difficult to invest in (the characters in particular are rather irritating) yet at the same time it’s almost impossible not to get swept up in the simple charm of it all. The performances, the soundtrack and the love of music make the film worthwhile, with Adam Levine of Maroon 5 providing some solid vocals (which just about excuse his terrible acting…) and Keira Knightley proving to be a surprisingly talented singer in her own right.
However, considering the film seems to take umbrage with both the commercialisation of music and the idea that love can conquer all, it’s amazing just how generic, how studio-driven and how maudlin it ends up being. Don’t get me wrong, I quite enjoyed the songs and I thought it was all was generally inoffensive and enjoyable, but for a film that extols the virtues of independent music, it really couldn’t be more predictable if it tried. Carney takes us on a journey through every cliché in the book and after a while it becomes more than a little bit tiresome, particularly when you’re also forced to spend way too much time in James Corden’s company.
Nonetheless, and probably in spite of myself, I did enjoy Begin Again. It’s Ruffalo’s film more than it is Knightley’s, as he puts in by far the best performance and Dan feels like the most realistic and unassuming character of the bunch. I wish it had the courage of its convictions and displayed some of the same independence of spirit that it idolises so much in the music industry, but when you cast Adam Levine as a sell-out musician you sort of have to wonder if maybe someone isn’t having a bit of an apt and ironic joke at the expense of the audience.
Begin Again is passable but forgettable, though the soundtrack is rather good. There’s nothing particularly hateful about it (other than some cheap and utterly unnecessary slut-shaming, which serves no purpose other than to confirm the film’s conservative credentials) and both Ruffalo and Knightley are engaging in their roles and have decent chemistry. It’s not quite as ambitious or as likeable as Once but let’s be honest, what musical is? Give it a go if you like the style of music on offer. If not, it’s probably one to avoid.