It would be a miracle if "Begin Again" could reach the giddy heights, musically and dramatically, of writer-director John Carney’s breakout film, "Once."
But darn it if his new movie — another tale of two people from different backgrounds coming together through recording music — doesn’t come close.
A worn-down record executive and a heartbroken songwriter become collaborators in this charming musical drama.
Where » Area theaters.
When » Opens Friday, July 11.
Rating » R for language.
Running time » 104 minutes.
One is Dan (Mark Ruffalo), a New York record executive who’s hit the skids. His partner, Saul (Yasiin Bey, the artist formerly known as Mos Def), fires him from the company they co-founded. He’s feuding with his ex-wife, Miriam (Catherine Keener), and distant from their teen daughter, Violet (Hailee Steinfield). And he’s got a drinking problem.
The other is Gretta (Keira Knightley), a shy English songwriter who arrived in New York with her rock-star boyfriend, Dave (played by Adam Levine, frontman for Maroon 5). Gretta has just broken up with Dave, due to his infidelity and instant fame, and is pouring her heartbreak into her songs.
The movie begins with their fateful meeting. Gretta is goaded by her musician friend Steve (James Corden) to sing one of her songs in an East Village bar. Dan stumbles into the bar, where an inattentive audience hears a nervous singer on her guitar (performing a mournful tale of suicide, "A Step You Can’t Take Back"). In his imagination, he hears how the song would sound with piano, drums and a string section. Carney even shows the instruments magically coming to life, employing a bit of clever visual trickery in an otherwise down-to-earth movie.
Dan pitches Gretta a crazy idea: They’ll record her songs, with backup musicians, all around New York City — using the Big Apple’s ambient sounds as another voice in the mix.
Much of "Begin Again" — which played festivals with the more interesting title "Can a Song Save Your Life?" — focuses on the music, through those recording sessions. It’s in the music that Gretta processes her heartache and expresses her anger, while for Dan the recording sessions are how he rediscovers his passion for music and — with an assist from Gretta — reconnects with Violet.
Ruffalo is great, as usual, as he adds another redeemable screw-up to his long list of similar roles ("You Can Count on Me," "The Kids Are All Right" and so on). Knightley stretches a bit more, bringing some working-class spunk she doesn’t get to deploy when performing Tolstoy or Austen.
Musically, Knightley acquits herself well in a movie dominated by pro musicians (including Levine’s colleague from "The Voice," Cee-Lo Green). Her voice is soft but expressive, a perfect instrument for the singer-songwriter into which Gretta evolves — especially in her showpiece, "Like a Fool," an angry ballad Gretta records into Dave’s voicemail.
"Begin Again," like "Once," also dares to be different from the usual Hollywood romance formula. Carney opens doors for its characters that lead in not-so-predictable directions and lets the music determine where they will go.
Copyright 2014 The Salt Lake Tribune. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.