For lovers of music, seeing a great tune put to an image can be an incredible joy. It also works wonders to see a fondness for music really shining through in something. For instance, John Carney’s Once, where a street busker writes and rehearses songs, with an jubilant tone, found a large audience both during its cinematic run, home entertainment release, and then its stage adaptation. Carney made such an impression with Once that to see him return to a musical focus made perfect sense. He writes and directs Begin Again (originally called Can a Song Save Your Life – a more fitting title), a story of a disgraced music producer who finds a great talent in a young singer-songwriter during an open mic-night.
Going from the naturalistic style of Once, with unknown actors, to the Hollywood-produced, huge star ensemble of Begin Again, thinking of Carney selling out could initially be accepted. Almost instantly, however, Begin Again shows that the nuanced sensibilities found in his 2006 feature are still intact. There are some big set-pieces, and luxurious scenes related to the moneyed side of the music industry, but are so obviously highlighted, that they are made to feel out of place alongside the grounded focus. Mark Ruffalo as the lead is an excellent choice to present this ideology – an actor who eases into his roles and always feels like the “everyman”. Keira Knightley regularly falls outside of this spectrum, so glamorous and chic in the media. In this, she loosens up and shines as the blossoming talent that Ruffalo’s Dan discovers. Reconsidering how they present their stars is not the only fascinating aspect of Begin Again, the regular rom-com formula is eschewed whereby love and heartbreak are dealt with entirely realistically.
Balancing a domestic situation between Dan, and his estranged daughter (Hailee Steinfeld) and ex-wife (Catherine Keener), a break-up between Knightley’s Gretta and singer Dave Kohl (Adam Levine), and a production of a live street-recorded album, Begin Again is a compound narrative. Carney never struggles with this, with only minor moments feeling dull or forced. Carney simply has a very measured take on plot and focus, able to cross between arcs without anything seeming inharmonious. And his spotlight on musical creation is always marvellous – the core of this film, and what everything pivots around. The soundtrack is the pulse of the film – with earbugs that will stay with you long after – full of life, keeping you entertained all the way through. It shows the progression of an album with tact, educating on the process and showing you the ebullient time that people must have creating music they love and believe in.
Some may find that Begin Again feels too kitsch in parts, and it never tries to recreate the matter-of-fact aesthetic of Once, leaving it as a polished yet practical film. Performances and music are warm and heartfelt, making it a certain crowd-pleaser. One scene explaining how one song can illuminate the most banal happening is a precious Carney observation, and a sublime, brief piece of cinema. And to leave you with one thought, who could have imagined the star of Lesbian Vampire Killers, James Corden, could steal so many moments away from famed Hollywood actors?