It’s not really fair to John Carney that his latest is immediately compared to “Once,” a masterpiece that has spread to Broadway and throughout pop culture, but its all we can do. No surprise then that “ Begin Again” is not in the same realm as its predecessor but it is a charming film that uses music to similarly wonderful results. Where it fails is in focusing too much on the latter and not enough on story and characters.
While you can’t really call “Once” or “Begin Again” musicals in the traditional sense, John Carney has proven with those outings that he tops the charts when it comes to using songs to tell a story, be it original or classics. It is in this area that “Begin Again” truly shines – which is no surprise when the original title for the film was “Can a Song Save Your Life?”
Each character is deeply affected by a song at one point of the story. Mark Ruffalo’s character is brought back from the edge of despair; a song her character writes defines Keira Knightley and Adam Levine’s relationship; and Ruffalo’s repairs his family by performing a song with his daughter (Hailee Steinfeld). It may seem like a gimmick, but those are the best sequences in the film and express these characters and their personal arcs better than the dialogue of the film actually does.
The film is significantly weaker when it plays scenes normally. It’s not that the script is poorly written, or that the film isn’t that well acted, rather it’s a distinct loss of energy. Carney’s touch is more present during the music scenes and the music brings something out of these characters that words can’t. You could argue that that is the point – these are people who are able to better express and learn about themselves through their music, but the drop off between their singing and their actual lives is as dramatic at points as black and white.
Not to mention the characters are actually all rather under cooked. Ruffalo’s down-on-his-luck music producer is a bit of a contradiction when it comes to his personal life. He was the responsible parent and yet he is the one his daughter has an estranged relationship with. Knightley’s journey may be easier to understand, but it is underwhelming.
Still, what this film does right is a pure joy to watch. Whether it be walking through New York City listening to your iPod with a kindred spirit, or proving all drunken calls to your ex aren’t such a bad idea if you have a beautiful song to tell them to screw off with, “Begin Again” will endear itself to you.
The nice thing is that bits you would have worried about before going into the movie don’t really hurt the overall product. Adam Levine’s acting debut is nothing to signal he should give up his day job, but he doesn’t detract because he isn’t asked to do too much. On the flip side, Keira Knightley can sing pretty well, so she can add that to her resume.
Carney may know how to use the songs that are given to him, but someone had to write them, and this time around that was Gregg Alexander. Time will tell if Alexander follows a similar path to that of Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova, who reaped the benefits from not only starring in “Once” but writing its songs, but it wouldn’t be a stretch to imagine that “Lost Stars” (listen to it embedded at the top of this article) winds up being a major contender for Best Original Song at the Oscars this year.
Music and film have been like peanut better and jelly since its invention, and “Begin Again” proves why - even not so subtlety says it. The songs tell the story of the film all on their own while at the same time get stuck in your head. The only problem with that is it seemed to come at the sacrifice of the characters and flow of the film when there isn’t music playing. In the end though, the characters grow enough to satisfy and damn that music is just too good not to enjoy.