Mark Ruffalo and Keira Knightley in Begin Again
Music can be a funny thing. It is an art, of course. But that doesn’t stop individuals like myself from being stuck in a moment when listening to different kinds of music. I can put on my iPod and listen to every single song on it. But for a few key songs, I can imagine where I was when I first experienced that song. The songs that move you as a person or have an impact on your life will always be important to you. There is another thing to appreciate about music. You can sense and feel the raw emotion certain artists put into their music. You can listen and just know that all of their heart and soul was put into that very song. They put every ounce of themselves into that song, and they just want to share it. I love artists that don’t give in to the temptation of money or fame. I love the artists that know the music that makes them unique and sticks with it, no matter how long it takes. And this is an element that is explored by John Carney in his new movie Begin Again.
John Carney had already made a movie about music and relationships and artistry when he directed Once. That movie was terrific and received widespread acclaim from critics all over. Begin Again may not be as good as Once, but it doesn’t need to be. Begin Again is it’s own movie and it succeeds in almost every way it sets out to.
Begin Again is about two people. Gretta (Keira Knightley) and Dan (Mark Ruffalo). The movie starts with a “once in a lifetime” encounter between the two. Gretta is a young singer-songwriter who happens to be invited on stage at an open-mic night in a Manhattan bar to perform her song. And Dan, who is a disgraced music business executive just happens to be in that very bar when he hears her sound. We see what Dan sees. He is imagining what her song could be if he produced it. He imagines the violin, the piano, the drums, and we even see the instruments being played in the background by nobody just to hear what he is actually imagining. And it is pretty great. Then, we get a look at how they came to be at that exact place in that moment. Dan is a mess who just got fired from his job by his former parter Saul (Yasiin Bey or as I know him, Mos Def). He obviously missed his ex-wife (Catherine Keener) and has a strained relationship with his daughter Violet (Hailee Steinfeld). And he looks like a bum. And Gretta just got dumped by her newly-formed rockstar boyfriend Dave (Adam Levine) because the fame got to his head and he fell for someone else. From that meeting, they venture out to make a unique collaboration, playing in different locations around New York City and recording it.
This movie works because Keira Knightley is amazing at life and Mark Ruffalo is one charming dude. Together, they have chemistry that lights up the entire movie. She plays so many different things. She is funny, artistic, and even pulls off those emotional moments really well. Knightley does her actual singing in this movie and she sounds legitimately good. I had no idea she could sing, but you will want to download or buy this soundtrack when the movie ends. Ruffalo’s Dan really needs redemption. He needs to fix the relationships in his life and it is interesting how connecting with Knightley’s character can make that a possibility.
Begin Again avoids falling into the trap of cliche after cliche. Adam Levine plays the cheating ex-boyfriend but he isn’t some cartoonish caricature that we see in these kinds of movies all the time. They give him a heart and feelings just like any other person. The same goes for Ruffalo’s ex-wife in this movie. Catherine Keener doesn’t get much screen time, but she makes use of what she has and you don’t feel like she is a terrible person. These feel like real people in a real situation and they aren’t painted as terrible people like any romantic comedy would paint them as. Like Inside Llewyn Davis, the soundtrack in this movie is phenomenal. The city is lit up by the music they play and that is half of the reason why New York looks so beautiful in this film. But unlike Inside Llewyn Davis, this film feels like there is a point to it. Two completely different kinds of movies, I know. But I can’t help feel like this movie just puts all of that raw emotion into its’ characters and music and you can feel it. This movie makes you feel good, just watching these people.
Mark Ruffalo really digs into this role. You actually believe he loves the music as much as his character does by how much he gets into when they are recording. The performances in this movie are all very solid. Even the supporting players and cameos play their parts. James Corden (who I know as Craig from Doctor Who) plays the best friend really well. He is funny and definitely feels like he belongs in that world. Ruffalo and Knightley both do amazing work in their roles. The moment in that club changes everything for those two characters, and you believe it. Dan believes he has found something worth giving a damn about again and Gretta starts to believe in herself and her music and that she can be someone outside of her ex-boyfriend. She can define herself. This is some of the best acting I’ve seen from Knightley in a long time. She was solid in Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit but here, she is really something. You see it all on her face as she is singing her song written for her ex-boyfriend. The emotions are all there and you can see them. That is what I mean about true artists that I find so interesting. You can see and feel the raw emotion they put into their work, and as a singer here, Knightley brings that all front and center.
I will make a separate point for Adam Levine. I did not expect much from him in this movie, his iconic high-pitched singing voice aside. He has this one song near the end of the movie where we can see past all of the poisonous things he has done for fame and stardom. He puts it all on the line and we can see it. And it works. One, it is a terrific song and performance, but it is also filled with a lot of emotion that really allows you to connect with him, Knightley, and the entire audience when you hear it.
Begin Again isn’t trying to be some big budget hollywood blockbuster. It avoids forcing a romance when it really isn’t there. You will feel something when you watch this movie. That is what I love about art, whether it is film, music, or any other art; good or bad, it will make you feel something. This film is heartfelt, moving, and genuine. They know what they are trying to say, and they mean every word of it. Begin Again made me feel good, walking out of that theater. It is a feeling that I want to keep for as long as I can. Films and music affect my life everyday, that is why I am passionate when it comes to film. Not because it is some escape from my life, but because I am affected by it all. Music and film are art, plain and simple. And I am happy when I can walk away from something artistic (music, artwork, film, etc) feeling the way this film made me feel. This isn’t as good as Once was, but it doesn’t need to be. It is still damn good, and this feeling I had walking out of the theater is one I feel a lot of different people will share with me.
Keira Knightley as Gretta
Mark Ruffalo as Dan
Adam Levine as Dave
James Corden as Steve
Hailee Steinfeld as Violet
Yasiin Bey aka Mos Def as Saul
Catherine Keener as Miriam
Cee Lo Green as Troublegum
WHAT I LIKED:
+: How genuine and deeply human this movie was. It is a feel good movie.
+: Avoided the trap of making the ex-boyfriend and ex-wife truly cartoonish characters. Also avoided the trap of forcing a romance between the two leads. It wouldn’t have made sense with the characters and I’m glad that was avoided.
+: The music was phenomenal.
+: Keira Knightley can sing extremely well. Also, her acting was top notch, along with the rest of the cast. Ruffalo brought it home as well.