Just like lightning never strikes the same place twice, it is highly unlikely for two films with the same-ish premise to be equally successful. Brought to you by the writer and director of Once (2006), Begin Again is a musical romantic dramedy about two lost souls that meet accidentally in a big city and change each other’s lives.
Dan Mulligan (Mark Ruffalo), a no longer successful record producer-slash-alcoholic, is having the worst of days. After being fired from the record company he co-founded years ago, he ends up at the bar, attempting to drown his sorrows in whatever he can afford. Gretta (Keira Knightley), a British songwriter who was dumped by her pop star boyfriend Dave (Adam Levine) hours earlier, is in the same bar, dragged there by a friend (James Corden) who didn’t want to leave her alone after aforementioned break-up. It’s an open mic night, and, unable to wiggle out of it, Gretta performs one of her songs in front of the crowd that doesn’t seem to care all that much. Dan, however, recognizes talent when he sees it.
Not having much to lose, Gretta agrees to let Dan produce her music. There’s a problem though – she doesn’t have a demo record and he no longer has a job that could help her get one. Determined, they decide to find bored out of their minds but still enthusiastic musicians and record Gretta’s album on the streets on New York, using it as an authentic background sound. Thankfully, Dan is not the last man in the music business. He pulls some stings and calls in for some favors, and he and Gretta are on it!
Parallel to it, we see Dan struggled with his relationship with his estranged wife Miriam (Catherine Keener) and 14-year old daughter Violet (Heilee Steinfield)–another part of his life that’s been falling apart after 18 years of marriage. In the meantime, Gretta’s ex Dave resurfaces and tries to patch things up between them. She’s tempted to cave in but after attending his show, she’s ready to move on.
Once the album is ready, Gretta and Dan take it to Dave’s former business partner Saul (Mos Def). Dan gets his job back, but Great, after coming face to face with the business side of music production, doesn’t want his company to represent her. Instead – with Dan’s approval and support – she uploads her album online and sells it for $1 per copy. Once again, Dan’s connections come in handy, and she manages to go viral and sell 10,000 copies overnight (or so). To make ‘happily ever after’ truly happy, Dan and Miriam save their marriage, and Gretta, inspired and uplifted by music, floats into the future (on her beloved bike).
All in all, Begin Again is a lovely and feel-good film, despite its occasional sad moments and sobering revelations. It had the same vibe and carried a similar message as Chef – keep dreaming, keep doing what you love, keep trying, and you’ll probably have the time of your life. I generally find the ‘follow you dreams’ films uplifting, regardless of what the characters have to go through to get where they want to be, and Begin Again wasn’t an exception.
It is almost sad that it will never be regarded as a standalone film, which, I believe, would’ve done it more justice than just being Once’s more grand in terms of production and less impressive in terms of music sibling.
The actors undoubtedly did the best they could, you can’t overlook that. Mark Ruffalo was very – VERY – convincing as a middle aged alcoholic. And who knew that Keira Knightley could actually sign? Playing off each other, they make a nice dynamic duo.
Big Apple in the background is always a win, and Dan and Gretta’s walk through the night city alone is totally worth sitting through the other 200 scenes. It was lovely and bittersweet, and if we forget for just a moment that the importance of the record companies is basically killed by the internet and social networking, Begin Again had a certain degree of honesty to it – from the inevitability of being cheated on to the healing power of music that somehow manages to fix pretty much everything, or at least mute it for a while.
Now about THE THINGS THAT SHOULD’VE WORKED BETTER BUT DIDN’T:
– Surprising lack of conflict and stakes. So what if Gretta’s album was a complete failure? It’s not like she wanted to have it recorded all that much in the first place. So, she’d go home, get back to school, start over and probably not date another musician again. So what if Dan didn’t get to record said album with her? It’s not like his business partner promised him his job back if he did. He’d probably drown in the bottle faster but that’s about it. Even his relationship with his wife, however messed-up it was, was left somewhere in the background, and then somehow just resolved itself. Like, I was rooting for all them to succeed and have a killer album and ride off into the sunset, but I wasn’t sure why.
– Begin Again runs for about 105 minutes but it definitely feels much longer than that. Understandably, since it’s not an action film, it is probably supposed to be a tad slow-paced – to give us all a chance to fully process everything and let it all sink in. But some parts of it were just too stretched. Not dragged exactly, but they could’ve been shorter and it would’ve worked so much better!
– The majority of story lines that had little to do with music were sort of half made. Like, the relationship between Dan and his daughter – it was only halfway there, and it was hard to be invested in it, the main issue being that they never really addressed it in any particular way other than being broody and judging each other silently. Also, were we supposed to root for Great and Dan, as in Gretta AND Dan, at some point?
– Since it is impossible not to compare Begin Again with Once, which I am going to apologize profusely for, it does not work the same way, music-wise, as Once. The songs, however well performed, just don’t click the way they should, thus making the whole film feel like… vanilla ice-cream. You enjoy it while it lasts but it isn’t memorable or long-lasting.
As a character, Gretta made a decent protagonist even thought she wasn’t as proactive as I’d want her to be, perhaps. She’s more reactive than active, to be honest. The only decisions she made on her own were – accepting Dan’s offer, dumping Dave for good and deciding not to work with Dan’s record company at the end of the film. In-between, she was more of a tag-along, although it’s fair to say that there probably wasn’t much she could’ve been in control of. Yet, as a protagonist, she was a bit too much into ‘going with the flow’ instead of pursuing her own goals.
On the upside, the soundtrack to Begin Again is lovely, which should go without saying, obviously, but I need to mention it nonetheless. All issues aside, the film is worth giving it a try if you love music at least to some degree. Not to mention that Adam Levine’s songs are like a cherry on top if you’re a fan of Maroon 5. Personally, I’m not, but his tunes are decent enough. (His voice when he’s not signing weirds me out though, so go figure).
Regardless of all mishaps, predictability and a slightly unrealistic premise, Begin Again is guaranteed to leave you with a nice aftertaste, some hope for the future and a couple of pleasant tunes stuck in your head. Admittedly, it is hard to look at sequels, prequels, remakes and/or follow-ups of any kind independently, but I encourage you to try doing so nonetheless.