Begin Again

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Review by Jane Freebury

The hauteur that goes with Keira Knightley’s cheekbones in some signature roles has vanished in this fresh and engaging human drama set in the streets and intimate low-rent spaces that New York offers the up and coming. Here as Gretta, the actor shows another side of her persona, the gangly kid, the ingénue with more talent than she realises.

With an eye and ear for flow and judicious use of iPhone video, director John Carney seamlessly stitches together recent past with raw and painful present. Gretta has arrived in New York with her partner in life and work, Dave (Adam Levine), the public face of their creative collaboration. He is asked for his photo on the streets. She gets the coffees for the team in the recording studio. Her sunny, trusting nature keeps her in good stead here, as does her talent for composition, and it appears to outweigh his. Diverging approaches are emerging. Dave is being steered toward stadium pop by his producers, while Gretta wants authenticity, no gimmicks.

Out-of work-music producer Dan played by the wonderful Mark Ruffalo holds similar views. When he hears Gretta singing in a bar, he has had by any measure a terrible day. Thrown out of his job at Distressed Records label, which he co-founded, punched in the nose for ducking out of a cafe without paying–his disgrace witnesssed on both occasions by teenage daughter Violet (Hailee Steinfeld)–Dan looks more the hobo than the music producer in stylish decline behind the wheel of his old Jaguar. Shouldn’t he be living off the fruits of success, like his rapper protégée Troublegum (Cee Lo Green)?

Dan may be down, but he’s not out. His knack for spotting talent is back. There’s a lovely scene when he straightens to attention listening to Gretta singing, perched on a seat. In his mind’s eye, Dan brings the silent cello, drums, keyboard and violin lying around idle to life to accompany her. Really, the entire film has lots of magic moments. Writer-director Carney has a deft touch, and a wonderful way for building music into the lives of his characters. It must be why his film Once from eight years ago still resonates.

Knightley has of course sung on screen before, even in the London underground during the blitz. She has a sweet voice, not quite compelling enough to justify Dan’s wild enthusiasm for her performance potential, but the imaginative incorporation of New York street life into the ‘outside album’ is as close to exhilaration that such an understated, charming film like this can get. Not only is it about real people falling in and out of love, it is about a vision for the music industry that is obviously dear to the filmmaker’s heart.

In a capsule: A really engaging experience with music industry creatives falling in and out love, and about the need for what’s authentic in the industry they work in.

4 stars