By Ed Sum (The Vintage Tempest)
Begin Again is a very savvy film about lost souls struggling to find new beginnings. When Gretta (sweetly played by Keira Knightley. Pirates of the Caribbean) and her long-time boyfriend Dave Kohl (Adam Levine, from the band Maroon 5) arrive in a city where dreams can be made with thanks to a potential recording contract being offered to Kohl, little do they know their life together gets dashed.
In another world, Dan Mulligan (Mark Ruffalo, Avengers), a former record label executive, has not produced a hit in years. He’s hard on his luck and he stands a chance of forever losing touch with his ex-wife and daughter. More could have been done with this subplot, but when a random meeting with Gretta gives him a chance to discover the next Alicia Keys, she does a lot to help him mend torn relationships. Thematically, some of her songs may have influenced the narrative that writer/director John Carney (Once, Zonad) constructed for this film. Viewers familiar with Once will no doubt find similarities in this American-backed update. This production is meatier; it has more substance in the development of its two main protagonists whereas the classic does a better job at celebrating the music.
To listen to the songs that Gretta composed outlines her life’s woes. Instead of belting out the Blues, she’s more folksy. Out of all the tunes featured in this film, “Tell Me If You Wanna Go Home,” is the most accessible that can score radio play on easy listening / adult contemporary stations. But very rarely can film stars break out into becoming part-time musicians. Knightly certainly has a pleasant singing voice, but there’s an extra mile that needs to be reached if she decides to explore a music career.
In this film, Gretta’s naivety makes for some interesting love-lorn moments in the early screen time that’s spent with Kohl. To see her get fired up requires Mulligan’s zest as a producer to emerge. But when she’s with Steve (James Corden), a mate from Britain, the feistiness they share is infectious. Corden is the highlight of this film with his comic timing and improvisation. As a street musician, the nod to Carney’s original narrative of how two people find themselves again is very evident.
This movie looks at life in a big city in a “New York State of Mind” — or should that be “Empire State of Mind?” The rough and tumble life in the fast lane of the music business is certainly explored. To highlight the success of how that’s achieved is hilariously depicted in the cameo appearance of CeeLo Green as Troublegum, a rapper who would have not made it big without the help of Dan. To see Mos Def as Saul, Dan’s business partner, a statement is more than being made when he’s simply interested in marketability than the deep meaning imbued into the music.
The title song, “Lost Stars,” is very apropos to get this point across. It gets several iterations as it’s being sung by different performers. When Gretta believes that “the music is about ears, not eyes,” there’s a point to be made. One interpretation is in how audiences should pay attention to the words being conveyed when sung. That can easily change when producers want to change the texture of the composition when mixing it.
As a songwriter, Gretta is writing the music for herself instead of for mass-market appeal. Her choice of how to share her music to the world is sharply contradicted by the producers and the distribution company for this film, who cannot offer the same. To see those tunes given out freely would have made this movie a true game-changer in an entertainment industry more concerned about dollars than artistry.
4 Stars out of 5