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Review: Begin Again

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Reviewers are never paid well (if, at all), but what we do have is the ability to record little moments of bliss – which is its own reward.

Moments after walking out of the screening of musical indie Begin Again I saw men in business suits bopping away with Hari Krishnas. As I turned into the tube station I heard a decent busker singing an obscure Oasis song I had forgotten that I liked. I doubt I would have found as much joy in these little moments of musical syncopation had I not just seen this movie.

Begin Again is itself a compelling drip-feed of clever references that makes movie reviewing such a pleasant experience and I did enjoy John Carney‘s latest outing. If that name seems familiar, it’s because Mr Carney is best known as the creator of award-winning Irish/Czech delight Once, a film that’s both a storytelling masterpiece and showcase for one of the best motion picture albums made. Full disclosure: I adore Once. I’ve seen the film many times, played the soundtrack more, seen Glen (Hansard) and Marketa (Irglova) play it live and reviewed the spin-off musical here. Call it bias if you want, I say I’m one of the toughest cookies to please out there. Begin Again had better live up to these extremely high expectations.

And it almost did… Anyone thinking that Begin Again is merely a spurious method of cashing in on the success of Once is wrong. Carney has tried very hard to separate the projects.

For example, the cast. Mark Ruffalo stars as Dan, an almost washed-up NYC A&R man who has recently fallen out with his journalist wife (the wonderful Catherine Keener) and is trying to be a good father to teenage Violet (Hailee Steinfeld). Dan chances upon songwriter Greta (Keira Knightley) singing at a dive with fellow Brit-out-of-water Steve (James Corden). Greta is edgy, having just split up with Dave (Adam Levine – not bad) her uni boyfriend who writes a soundtrack and becomes a big star, leaving her behind.

The Once similarities are myriad. Dan and Greta are a will they/won’t they couple. She is in a foreign land, Dan’s a local. She plays piano and both Dan and Dave play guitar. There are a stack of break-up songs and some rabble-rousers, plus of course it’s a wistful feel-good movie. Even the title is simplistic as its predeccesor. In fact, Begin Again was previously called Can a Song Save your Life? And I prefer this new, less twee title.

However, there were things I hadn’t banked on, that come from using big name talent in a small-feeling production. For example, I wasn’t prepared for how much I would like Keira’s singing voice (see video clip below). A breathy sound with excellent pitch and at odds with her character, Greta, who is Elizabeth Bennet for the millennial musos. Knightley’s performance was nicely unstudied and naturalistic, especially when on screen with Corden.

Steinfeld made the best of her stereotypical angry daughter, Keener’s name is a by-word for a quality movie, and like Hansard’s hoover-fxer-sucker-guy, Ruffalo’s Dan is extremely watchable here. Ruffalo wanted to give up acting and was saved by The Kids Are Alright. He remains the most louche screen-presence I’ve ever seen, watching him makes me feel safe. I feel equally cosseted seeing his Hulk or here as Dan. Ruffalo is enjoying this role, drinking it up, and carousing while still being perfectly likeable – no mean feat.

The quality of Carney’s script means that we’re party to quirky music jokes (a funny riff with Greta and Dan over MySpace) and visual ones (some priceless looks from Keener). But my favourite scene is between Levine and Knightley showing the intricate spoken and unspoken communication of romantic relationships.

This is a film of false-starts and maybes and that is its keenest strength.

Begin Again only suffers minimal problems, primarily with its association with Once. It is impossible to replicate the unadulterated pleasure of Once – and Begin Again should stop trying toThis isn’t a break-out film filled with unknowns, that magic is distilled essence of novelty, this film is supposed to be a new creation, not an homage. Just like that busker who recognised the genius of the early Oasis alchemy, it reminded me that the best work is often the earliest, where expectations were low and expression was high. Begin Again should have made prouder use of its budget and star power.

Finally, it was interesting to see Judd Apatow as one of the producers of the film. The man who madeSuperbad is perhaps finally growing up – moving his money, and I hope with it, his audience, to work of a richer quality.

Can a song save your life? Hardly. But a film can save your evening and that’s what Begin Again did for me.

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