'Begin Again' delivers commonplace plot but uncommonly beautiful music

The Weinstein Company

By Omar Mahmood, Daily Arts Writer
Published July 9, 2014

“And you find yourself at the subway,
With the world in a bag by your side … ”

Begin Again

The Weinstein Company
Rave and Landmark Art Theatre

Such is our introduction to Greta ( Keira Knightley,“Pride and Prejudice”), a despondent singer living in New York City, still reeling from a breakup with rising star Dave Kohl, played by Adam Levine (of Maroon 5 fame). The words also ring true for Dan (Mark Ruffalo, “The Avengers”), a record label pioneer who discovered talents like Cee-Lo Green (who plays himself), but who has since fallen on hard times. He has been divorced and has just lost his job, having been fired earlier in the day by his own co-founder in front of his daughter Violet (Hailee Steinfled, “True Grit”), whom he gets to see only once a month.

Dan sits hopelessly at a pub, stooping drunk and broke over a brandy. Just then, Greta is called on stage to sing a song on her guitar. The timing could not be more perfect for both the depressed drunkard and the struggling singer.

Magic happens. In an inebriated moment of genius, Dan begins to envision perfect arrangements to accompany Greta’s voice, and we see the piano, violin, and drums playing themselves as he waves his fingers and bobs his head.

Knightley plays her part with her trademark elegance, not unaided by her “posh English girl accent,” per her loyal friend Steve (James Corden, “Gavin and Stacey”). She seems so uncertain in her own talent, so forlorn, that we immediately yearn to know where she gets that look in her eyes and that soul in her voice. At times it is hard to forget that this isn’t Lizzy Bennet from Pride and Prejudice .

So begins their likely friendship. Dan and Greta both need each other desperately, and they both have similar romantic pasts. In a well-done rewind into Greta's history, right up to the fateful moment at the pub, we find the reason behind the heartbreak in her song — her breakup with Dave. One could watch “Begin Again” just to hear Keira Knightley singing beautiful songs composed by Gregg Alexander. Levine, when he heard Knightley singing the title song 'Begin Again' on set, told her to keep going, because if this were The Voice he would have turned around.

Dan and Greta decide to make an album set on the streets of the city, a tribute to its beauty and chaos. They shoot one scene at the foot of the Empire State, another canoeing in Central Park ... you can guess the rest.

The musical cast brings alive the anecdotal craziness that comes with an artistic mind. The actors deliver so well, in fact, that they almost make us forget how dull the underlying plot is. The dialogue is engaging enough, but the story unfolds predictably in the mold of a feel-good Disney movie. Who hasn't heard about the talented kid who was on the verge of losing hope when an agent happened to believe in him?

The plot may seem directionless at times – sometimes we are left to wonder whether this is simply a romance between Dan and Greta, and sometimes it might as well be about Dan's daughter Violet finding herself as she goes through puberty. But to John Carney's credit, Begin Again is a treasure trove of memorable lines and lovely scenes. Highlights include Dan hand in hand with Greta in her red dress, frolicking around Broadway to Frank Sinatra's “As Time Goes By”. No sooner can we forget Cee-Lo humorously telling his assistant to write down the rap he just threw down to welcome Dan, “because that was exceptionally good.” And the light shining on Adam Levine's face as he sings his heart out for Greta, singing the same song that she wrote for him in the arrangement that she wanted, is a magnificent conclusion.

The heart of Begin Again is its music. We can all appreciate the indisputable take-home message, that music should be genuine. And though the movie may well overdo that message, it is beautifully overdone nonetheless.