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Review: Begin Again (2014)

Begin Again (2014)

Directed by: John Carney

Premise: A down on his luck music executive (Mark Ruffalo) and an unsigned singer-songwriter (Keira Knightly) meet in New York City and collaborate on an album.

What Works: Movies about show business and the entertainment industry are not uncommon. The past decade has seen a limited revival of the musical with television programs like Glee and motion pictures such as Pitch Perfect. What is distinct about Begin Again is that it is made with a savvy understanding for music and the music industry. A lot of feature films about show business are cautionary tales about fame; nearly every musical biopic since The Doors has been about talented musicians who rocketed to success, were swallowed by money and drugs, and ended up dead or in recovery. The irony is that in most of these films the music becomes an afterthought and takes a backseat to the excesses of fame. Begin Again is about people who haven’t made it yet and struggle to put together good music and maintain their artistic integrity. The movie emphasizes the craft of songwriting, the skill of musicianship, and the ingenuity of producing. The filmmakers do this by making very smart use of sound. The audio of the movie is mixed in unexpected ways that amplify the beauty of natural sounds but also showcase the power of different styles of music to shape our emotional reactions. Begin Again also demonstrates that its moviemakers were in touch with the current trends in the music industry and the culture, in particular the decentralization of power in the industry through online distribution. The cinematic and musical qualities of Begin Again are complemented by an engaging story and characters who are very real. Since stepping away from popcorn action movies, Keira Knightly has proven herself to be a very likable and natural actress well suited to modestly budgeted, relationship-centered movies. In Begin Again, Knightly is able to simultaneously project vulnerability and confidence, which is a tricky combination. She is paired with Mark Ruffalo, who, as always, is very good. His character begins as a cliché of an alcoholic music producer but over the course of the story Ruffalo distinguishes his character and he and Knightly’s character bond over music. Begin Again also features a supporting performance by Maroon 5 frontman Adam Levine. When pop musicians try to act the results are typically abysmal but Levin does a very nice job and smartly underplays some key moments.

What Doesn’t: As he did in the 2006 feature Once, writer and director John Carney teases the audience with the potential of a love story. Both Keira Knightly and Mark Ruffalo’s characters are on the outs with their other halves and movie logic dictates that these two will eventually fall in love with each other. There is a romantic tension between the two characters that plays out effectively but mostly subtly. The filmmakers tease the audience with the possibility of a full on love affair and the fact that they don’t resort to the obvious conclusion is to the movie’s credit. However, this is bound to leave some members of the audience feeling unfulfilled. Taken for what it is and what it is trying to do, there is one major flaw to Begin Again and it’s mostly ideological. The filmmakers demonstrate an understanding of where the music industry is at this point and time but the anti-commercial views espoused by the main characters and implicitly endorsed by the film are naïve. The movie suggests that real art is not found in a sterile studio but in the grit and improvisation of the streets and clubs. While that may be true, artistry also requires investment and infrastructure in order to produce anything and both of those things require money.

DVD extras: Featurette and music videos.

Bottom Line: Begin Again is a fine movie with a terrific soundtrack and some strong performances. It may not be the movie that audiences expect but it is one of the better films about music to come along in a while.

Episode: #519 (November 23, 2014)