This film provides the perfect mix of music and relationships, blending both with equal parts of raw emotion thrown in for good measure. Viewers looking for a splendid date night movie or an up-close view of the music industry’s research and development side of the house will find “Begin Again” a very satisfying summer soundtrack and film experience.
Director John Carney, who brought us the surprise 2006 hit “Once” using unknown film stars singing an Oscar-winning tune, attempts to capture much of that same success and winning formula in this adventure. Academy Award nominee Keira Knightley (for 2005’s “Pride & Prejudice”) is a familiar screen presence playing the role of a British songwriter for her boyfriend (portrayed by real-life singer Adam Levine). Admirably, Carney gets both Knightley and Levine to venture outside their normal day-to-day comfort zones—actress Knightley showing off her singing chops for the first time on the big-screen while Maroon 5 lead vocalist Levine uses “Begin Again” to launch a potential film career.
“Begin Again” is a compelling and rich movie that takes viewers along the artistic music path from talent discovery to chart-topping success. It examines the behind-the-scenes struggles of a record-label exec (Mark Ruffalo) that has hit rock bottom personally and professionally. And what a challenge life is for him—with his employment, marriage and fatherhood all hanging in the balance. Ruffalo’s stellar midlife crisis performance as the character Dan will easily make viewers forget he ever wore green paint as The Hulk in “Marvel’s The Avengers” (2012).
It’s the believability and realism in “Begin Again” that separates this film from so many other romantic dramas and comedies. Director Carney’s movie modus operandi is to let his storylines take a natural and acceptable course in a film—even if that means final scenes don’t tie up loose ends or conclude with happy endings for all involved. Carney sides with reality and any tiebreakers towards the end of the film usually sway in the direction of life’s real uncertainties—leaving the audience to find their own movie wrap.
Although Oscar history tells us that films debuting before September have an uphill battle to gain Academy Award nominations, “Begin Again” has several things going for it. Ruffalo, an Oscar nominee for 2010’s “The Kids Are All Right” and a real-life brain tumor survivor, achieves his finest performance ever in film. “Begin Again” gives a chorus of music throughout, but after the last note is sung, this movie is about Ruffalo and his character, Dan. Ruffalo’s inspiring and brilliant effort deserves an Oscar nod in the Best Actor category. Likewise, a strong supporting cast that includes previous Oscar nominees Hailee Steinfeld (“True Grit”) as Dan’s teenage daughter and Catherine Keener (“Being John Malkovich”) playing his wife flawlessly cover any acting shortcomings from film novice Levine. The entire ensemble successfully sells the realism behind the microphone while Carney avoids any awkward gimmicks or faux pas in the relationship between Ruffalo and Knightley.
“Begin Again” easily makes my Top 10 List for 2014 films. Exceptional performances, particularly Ruffalo’s as the ear of the music industry, reward filmgoers with a realistic storyline of relationships and turning one’s life around after setbacks. Knightley’s first-ever singing gig may not have been pitch perfect during every ballad, but she kept the storyline interesting and plausible. Carney, much like his successful Irish music drama “Once”, provides an encore that’s very watchable to viewers due to its realistic depiction of life. The film and its conclusion—which continue as credits roll—allow us to eavesdrop and listen in to how music is discovered but also made, promoted and sold. “Begin Again” is great movie to add to your summer playlist.
(Editor’s Note: Patrick King is a resident of Oro Valley and writer for the REEL BRIEF movie blog at www.reelbrief.com)