July 09--Set in what a music producer calls that "crazy, fractured mess of a city" known as New York, "Begin Again" is essentially an old-fashioned, let's-put-on-a-show movie musical disguised as an indie relationship drama for a balkanized generation of pop-rock consumers that is much more familiar with CeeLo Green and Maroon 5 frontman Adam Levine (both of whom have acting roles here) than with Busby Berkeley and Judy Garland.
Instead of song-and-dance numbers, the movie offers stage and recording-session performances and montages in which source music replaces the vocals that in an old musical would have been provided by the actors onscreen. In one long sequence, the two leads, played by Mark Ruffalo and Keira Knightley, essentially dance through New York, "On the Town"-style, but the scene is "realistic" because they -- and the audience -- are hearing vintage Sinatra and Stevie Wonder tracks through the headphones the characters share. The music inspires the duo's joy.
"Begin Again" -- the generic title is an blah substitute for the original "Can a Song Save Your Life?" -- is Irish writer-director John Carney's follow-up of sorts to the authentically indie charmer that put him on the international charts, "Once" (2006), a lo-fi Sundance romantic smash that won an Academy Award for Best Original Song and begot a 2012 Broadway musical. The new film seems inspired in part by the pressures and debates about "authenticity" and "selling out" that likely accompanied the earlier film's success, but it's ultimately a feel-good project that asks us to believe a pretty-skinny pixie of a British indie-folk songwriter with no recording experience can come to the Big Apple, leave her no-good celebrity boyfriend, make a hit record and rehabilitate her self-sabotaging producer while also healing the man's broken family relationships. That's a lot of heavy lifting for someone as skinny as Keira Knightley. The reason this works as well as it does is very much due to the appeal of Ruffalo and Knightley, who appear to be having a ball (as does the entire cast, for that matter).
Rumpled and slouchy, Ruffalo is Dan Mulligan, an obstinate and opinionated but lovable veteran record producer and label co-founder who lets his big mouth, his drinking habit and his vaunted integrity interfere with his professional interests.
Dan complains that his estranged 14-year-old daughter (Hailee Steinfeld) dresses like Jodie Foster in "Taxi Driver" (in fact, she does). Unsympathetic to Dan's drive-by opinions is his ex-wife, played by Catherine Keener, who -- as is too often the case these days -- doesn't have much to do here beyond exuding a sort of wise Earth Motherly weariness.
"Begin Again" introduces us to Dan at a point of career crisis, but our hero's disgust with the music industry lifts when, by sheer chance, he is drinking in a tiny club when sad, reluctant Gretta (Knightley, acquitting herself nicely on vocals) performs a single tentative song onstage, at the urging of a friend.
Listening to and looking at Gretta, Dan's music-producer Spider-sense begins to tingle. In what already has become the movie's signature scene, Carney takes us inside the drunken man's head as Dan imagines a professional studio arrangement for the song, adding drums, a cello, a piano and other instruments to Gretta's voice and strummed guitar. Carney visualizes Dan's brainstorm with special effects: We see the instruments behind Gretta essentially come to life and play themselves, as in an animated cartoon. In the pre-digital era, the successful achievement of this idea would have been a tour de force tribute to the director's determination, but in 2014, the scene might as well be the result of a whim.
Dan tells Gretta he wants to produce her music, but she claims to be interested in self-expression, not a career. A courtship, of sorts, develops, complete with debates about the music business (Gretta bristles when Dan says her good looks will help her career). These dialogues are fairly elementary, but they more or less ring true, and they continue when Gretta is with her unfaithful boyfriend, Dave Kohl (Levine), a rising star who has embraced the trappings of celebrity and the sound of "stadium pop."
The best thing about "Begin Again" is what it's not. It's not a love story, or at least not a conventional love story; it's more of a friendship story between a man and a woman, which is something we almost never see in movies, and that we ought to see more often. For that, some Memphians may deserve credit. "Begin Again" is the latest feature from Sycamore Pictures ("The Way, Way Back"), a company co-founded by Germantown investment banker Ben Nearn. In addition to Nearn (and Judd Apatow, for that matter), the movie's multiple credited producers include two other native Memphians, Ian Watermeier ("End of Watch") and Molly Smith ("The Blind Side").
(c)2014 The Commercial Appeal (Memphis, Tenn.)
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