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‘Begin Again’ rewards a search for entertainment amidst lackluster alternatives

2014 movie Begin Again


If the havoc and stress of the work week has left you drained and straining for some reason to pump your fist and yell, “Yes! That was a great movie,” there’s one offering still at the box office. “Begin Again” is just for you. What? You have not seen the Panavision and Technicolor commercial broadcast for the movie advertised on television 37 times a day, in anticipation or celebration of the hoopla surely surrounding the film’s release? No, because they don’t have any. You might have missed the full page ads announcing the all-star cast. They didn’t run any.

James Corden, Keira Knightley and James Ruffalo attend a photocall for 'Begin Again' on July 2, 2014 in London, England.
Photo by Eamonn M. McCormack/Getty Images

Begin Again” is a cast of Hollywood and television favorites joined together to play nobodies, and somebodies, who have experienced gradations of fame, fortune, falling down, and sinking further down, in the music business, without violence or overly gratuitous displays of “stupid.” The careers of two singer-songwriters, Gretta and Dave (Keira Knightly and Adam Levine), are followed, along with dreams smashing and relationships breaking that once seemed impervious. They break anyway.

You meet a broken man along the way, a former music mogul, Dan (Mark Ruffalo) far below “down on his luck.” One night in a drunken stupor that he’s long worked hard to reach, Dan “hears a vision” of what is good and right about music, in a song that literally sings to him an arrangement of how it could, and should, from a new voice. From that millisecond of consciousness of music magic, Ruffalo’s character is able to retrace his steps and regain enthusiasm for why he’d created an independent music label years earlier. His path is far from easy, his path is not pleasant, but you walk it with him because you buy in.

Check out the movie poster featured here, with the quote from “Rolling Stone” that deems it “Irresistable, funny and romantic.” It’s not particularly romantic in a specific sense but it is charming. It’s not as much funny as it is fun. It is, however, irresistible. “Rolling Stone” who used to be the Life Cereal’s version of Mikey (“He hates everything”) said, “Mark Ruffalo continues to astonish, Keira Knightley is at her best, and Adam Levine is a revelation.”

Truth in advertising: Ruffalo is not astonishing. He’s a great actor but he’s a journeyman capable of playing anyone in anything convincingly. The latest buzz is that he wants to play Columbo on the big screen, and he definitely looks rumpled enough here.

Adam Levine is absolutely not a revelation. He’s able to grow a beard, and shave a beard, and he sings as well solo as he does with Maroon 5, but most of all he’s a brilliant businessman who’s busy cashing in on his 15 mins of fame and fortune with all jets burning, and he does a nice job. Okay. He’s a great singer who can barely contain his excitement about being in a feature film.

Moving on, CeeLo Green, Adam’s former colleague on “The Voice,” does a tremendous job as Troublegum, in a role so abbreviated that it’s like an exploding cameo, but you still feel the love. CeeLo is on target, not overdone, overhyped, or over-anything, just solid, and does the character with the heart of gold proud. Flashback scenes in and out of “before” and “now” help set, and re-set, the story for the audience along the way.

It was, however, hip-hop music man/actor Mos Def, who was a genuine surprise as a not-that-pleasant fellow but was important to the story for a while. He’d played Chuck Berry in “Cadillac Records” but this time he had to play Mr. Big Businessman and did a good job. You think this fella lives in a 9-to-5 world, really.

Rob Morrow makes you forget he was an FBI guy in “Numb3rs” as he portrays a record label CEO to a “t” with that “love ya, babe” slicked up, poser charm. That’s just what good actors do, even if it is for exactly one (important) scene in the film. They find a project like this and decide they want to be a part of it, even if it’s only for a moment or two, simply because of its honesty.

To be perfectly frank, it’s the no-name, unnamed new faces on the screen that light up the film. Hailee Steinfeld, as Dan’s daughter Violet; James Corden as Knightly’s best friend and Oscar nominee Catherine Keener as Dan’s estranged wife who play roles as important as the better-known names in telling the story. You don’t really know them. Steinfeld has 23 acting credits and she’s only 17 years old, but this may be the movie where you learn her name, really.

There are five unnamed, or names quickly spoken, musicians in Greta’s band who comprise for her a family unit, and they are superb. Her interest in their success, and sharing hers with them, reminds you that at some point along the way, truly talented people don’t forget who helped get them where they are today. Some of the band actors say nothing; yet, their looks and on-screen contributions are “gold” to this movie, and you could listen to the music they make together all night long.

James Corden plays Steve, who is truly Gretta’s best friend, who makes you wish you actually had a friend this good, because he’s the real deal. The interactions of the solidly talented, naturally charming Keira Knightly with all the “names you don’t know that well, really” are what “make” the film for the viewer, as her countenance is the centerpiece of the story by which you gauge your emotions.

On the worst nights of her life on screen, throughout she remains brilliantly brave. On her happiest moments in life, she is unabashedly calm, ever the embodiment of the British “Keep Calm and Carry On,” so the story, not Knightly, is the star. There’s the plot on the screen to follow and the back story of how several of the most powerful on-screen players in Hollywood are in this film that virtually no one has heard of. Apparently, it begins with the music. Keira Knightly sings. She sings well. She sings very well.

You may have to go to page 2 or scroll to the bottom of your favorite movie theatre’s web page list of “now showing.” And since everything these days is online for advertising (social media rules and all), you might not find it at first. You may not even recall the film is called “Begin Again.” It’s the second film ever made with that same name in fact.

As one moviegoer, just checking the list of options for what to see was daunting and demoralizing, before I actually found something worth seeing. The film was released officially on July 11, but its opening weekend (June 27) only earned $134,064; six days later this film had grossed $6,725,000+ and not a transformer in the group.

By the way, last weekend’s estimated box office for the apes was $73.0 M, for the transformer types was $16.5M, and with yet the saddest commentary on filmgoers’ intelligence, “Tammy” managed $12.9M. You could have bought important books for elementary school libraries around the country, or fed the hungry, but instead, people paid money to be entertained by “Tammy.” If you did, apologize to yourself and go see “Begin Again,” and cast your vote for a film with a plot and actors and music you want to go download.

Given the number of television commercials and endless sea of movie trailers that endure at least 25 minutes before your feature shows, you’d think there would have been plenty of opportunities to learn about “Begin Again.” Nope. Nothing. Nada. It would have been so nice to see a preview of “Begin Again,” but really it’s more special to simply stumble into it accidentally and discover that a full cast of quality actors and accomplished musicians will join on board a project that is written and directed by John Carney. Catch the official movie trailer number one in the accompanying video.

You can see “Begin Again” for however long your local cinema keeps it in the theatres. Watch out, or they’ll move it out by the end of the coming week on Thursday. Sadly it’s tough to make room these days for charming movies with a story that scoop you up into the narrative and give you a reason to cheer the protagonist, to see the downtrodden uplifted, and say “hurrah” for a feel-good ending.

Nope. No place for those films when they need more room at the cinema Cineplex multi-movie-magic-madness films with all the blood-and-guts weird stuff, the inevitable fourteenth version of the ape planet thing, or the fourteenth time that Jason Segel has been spectacularly vapid, or was it the fifteenth time? Or show another bawdy promo of the third film that was sure to prove that someone in Hollywood was trying to rehab Cameron Diaz’s tanked career. Would someone just please make “The Holiday II” and put the poor girl back on her feet again? Jude Law can cry some more and Jack Black can be charming. There, that fixes things.

Rather than see “Begin Again” you can see “Tammy,” the film that was made as the third time someone confused Melissa McCarthy with Conchata Ferrell, who really “can” act if she is in anything not produced by Chuck Lorre. Why did they have to call it “Tammy” when there was already a perfectly good Debbie Reynolds movie and song by that name and she could act and she could sing? She still can. Harrumph.

There is, of course, “22 Jump Street” with Channing Tatum, but frankly, his best film was the 2006 dance-lovin’ “Step Up” and ever since then, it’s all been downhill. Well even with all those choices, you might still think there’s nothing on at the movies. But there is at least one independent film that makes you remember why you went to the movies in the first place, to enjoy an evening away from work. “Begin Again” helps you do just that, begin again.

Go see it while it’s still in the tiny screen number one, the one you walk past and miss while looking for the larger theatre rooms. The 8 p.m. local showing was filled to capacity tonight and the two teenage girls behind us kicking the chairs incessantly made me think that while it was a bad thing that they had no respect for their elders (those being anyone over the age of 14), at least they were seeing “this film” and not others. Blame the good vibes and spirit of forgiveness on the music, the movie, and the writer-director, John Carney.

Walking out of the theatre, I said, “I haven’t felt that great about a film since “Once.” And having paid no attention to the opening credits (thank you distracting movie patrons who can’t manage to arrive on time and who must still text long after the lights have gone out and three commercials remind you not to do that), I missed it. And to realize that the same John Carney who wrote and directed “Begin Again” did so for “Once,” you just have one of those “aha moments” where you catch yourself smiling, once again.

You can find the soundtrack on iTunes featuring Keira Knightly (yes she’s really singing and yes she does a fine job of it), Adam Levine, Cee-Lo, the Cessyl Orchestra and the Interscope Records/Geffen soundtrack (“Music from and Inspired by the Original Motion Picture) will likely find its way into more profits than the movie.
After all, John Carney’s movie “Once” won an Academy Award for the music as well as several Tony Awards for the Broadway play, so the man knows what works. “Begin Again” was dedicated to Carney’s brother, Jim, and a fitting tribute it is. Music soothes the soul and “Begin Again” soothes the worn-out soul and quiets the deafening noise of the week that was.

Go see it for yourself. You’ll be glad you did. As Knightly’s character, Gretta, says to Ruffalo’s Dan, “This really is a bit of long shot, isn’t it? And he replies, “Absolutely. That’s when the magic happens.”

[Note: In Bryan-College Station, you’ll only find “Begin Again” at the Cinemark 18 (shown five times a day, in theatre one, so get there early).

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