Begin Again movie review: up tempo

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Begin Again green light

A hugely satisfying ode to entrepreneurial creativity, and a glorious love letter to New York City and the art it inspires. I love this movie so much.
I’m “biast” (pro): love the cast

I’m “biast” (con): nothing

(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)

I love this movie so much. Partly for how it demonstrates how little a movie has to deviate from an oh-so-repetitive format to come up with something fresh and exciting but also still comfortable and comforting. And partly for being so radical in a few attitudes while it’s being comfortable and comforting.

I mean, writer-director John Carney — who got famous with Once, and this is even better — only has to switch things up a little bit to upend our expectations about a movie. Like how he first introduces us to English songwriter Gretta (Keira Knightley [Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, Anna Karenina], doing her own very appealing singing) and lingers over her story about coming to New York with her pop-star boyfriend Dave (Adam Levine) and that not going so well. Just when the movie seems to be heading down a certain sort of rom-dram rabbit hole, up pops music producer Dan (Mark Ruffalo [Now You See Me, Marvel’s The Avengers], deliciously scruffy), and Carney lets us wallow with him for a while in his drunken misery over depressing crap ranging from the pathetic state of the music industry to getting his heart broken by his wife, Miriam (Catherine Keener: Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa, The Croods).

This is a tale, foremost, about creative partnerships of varied kinds and degrees of success, and so Gretta and Dan must come together. Which they do, in one of the most remarkable scenes revolving around music I’ve ever seen on film: Dan hears in his head (and shares with us) a full arrangement around a song Gretta is singing on a small club stage with only her own guitar strumming for actual accompaniment. (This is how they meet: he is used to hearing uninspiring junk music, and hers ain’t that. She’s a poet.) And then they embark upon a wonderful entrepreneurial musical adventure that involves recording an entire album of her songs in a most unusual, most delightful way that is creatively visionary and becomes a glorious love letter to New York City and to the art it inspires.

The songs are fab: first thing I did after getting home from the movies was buy the soundtrack. The cast is fab: I love how Carney avoids all teenage-girl clichés in Hailee Steinfeld’s (3 Days to Kill, Ender’s Game) Violet, Dan’s somewhat estranged daughter; I love how the usually annoying James Corden (“The Gruffalo’s Child”, Doctor Who), as Gretta’s pal Steve, is a genuinely sweet presence; and the only complaint I have about Mos Def (I’m Still Here, Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby), as Dan’s business partner, is that he should be in this more, because he is Mos Def and he is awesome.

Absolutely the best of all, however, is the perfect ending. Well, the two perfect endings. There’s the hugely satisfying one that wraps up the part of the story that has been mostly Gretta’s in exactly the right way, which is an exactly right way that the vast majority of movies about women simply never even grasp as an option. And then there’s the one that runs over the end credits, the one that wraps up the story that Gretta and Dan have been jointly a part of. I kinda was hoping things were gonna end up going in this direction, and the fact that they did sent me out of the cinema walking on air.

See also my #WhereAreTheWomen rating of Begin Again for its representation of girls and women.

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Fri, Jul 25, 2014 10:20am

I was impressed by Mos Def back in The Italian Job remake, and I’m surprised he hasn’t had more film work. I suppose Hitch-Hiker was bad for him. The trailer for this looked confused, and I suspect that’s because it didn’t know which sort of clichéd film to invoke.

MaryAnn Johanson
reply to  RogerBW
Fri, Jul 25, 2014 4:43pm

Hitchhiker was bad but he was so good!

I think the first thing I saw him in was The Woodsman — he’s so good in that. He just has the unfakeable It that makes you unable to take your eyes off him onscreen.

I bet making trailers for movies that aren’t full of clichés is really tough.

reply to  MaryAnn Johanson
Mon, Jul 28, 2014 7:11pm

He blew me away in Monsters Ball. That was the first time I’d seen him acting. He was great as Chuck Berry, too, in Cadillac Records. (Everyone was great in that movie…I’d really like to see it again.)

Musically, Black Star (him and Talib Kweli) are in my pile of music and his albums Black on Both Sides and True Magic (among others) are well worth the price. And he gives great interviews.

Fri, Jul 25, 2014 12:56pm

who got famous with Once, and this is even better

Really! Sold.

Maja Molière
Fri, Jul 25, 2014 10:16pm

Absolutely agree with you on all points. Looking for the soundtrack as I type. I am loving this film so much it makes me leave a comment on someone’s blog :)

Sat, Jul 26, 2014 7:12am

… one of the most remarkable scenes revolving around music I’ve ever seen on film: Dan hears in his head (and shares with us) a full arrangement around a song Gretta is singing on a small club stage with only her own guitar strumming for actual accompaniment.

This. I didn’t love BEGIN AGAIN quite as much as you did (though I liked it a lot), but that one scene was worth the price of admission. And it was even better than you described in the context of how the film is structured … which I don’t want to say too much about, because people who haven’t seen the movie yet should experience it for themselves.

MaryAnn Johanson
reply to  cinderkeys
Sat, Jul 26, 2014 2:27pm

Exactly. The structure really isn’t all that extraordinary — it’s not exactly experimental or anything — but it’s simply something we haven’t seen before that I can recall. It’s one of the little something specials that make this movie work as well as it does.

Mon, Jul 28, 2014 4:00pm

The one time I came out of a movie desperate to buy the soundtrack was for the (not very good but eminently hummable) A Good Year, the Russell Crowe rom-com. It was average at best, but the soundtrack has everything from Harry Nilson to Maurice Chevalier to a French version of “Itsy Bitsy Teeny Weeny Yellow Polka-Dot Bikini”. I love the album!

Mon, Jul 28, 2014 7:03pm

I have this on my list to see.

Are at least the Keira Knightly character’s songs written for this movie? If I like them, I might add the soundtrack to my music shopping list.

[tl/dr soundtrack philosophy digression: Generally, I don’t buy soundtracks, I only own 3 on CD: Holes, Wings of Desire, and Baraka. I
probably have listened to WofD most of the those. Holes’ songs existed
independently of the movie (but were in an interesting mix and I was desperate for a cd to block out some distracting workmates) but Wings of
Desire and Baraka had music written specifically for them that not only
worked really well with the movie and were good pieces of music on their
own, but also are incredibly evocative of the scenes of the films. I had wanted Chumbawamba’s soundtrack for Revengers Tragedy, too. Never found a copy. I think they were sold or distributed at the premiers only.]

reply to  LaSargenta
Mon, Jul 28, 2014 7:49pm

No one asked me, but my favorite these days is Beasts of the Southern Wild. I also like Juno, Magnolia, Across the
and Garden State–and I’m really getting into this CD, which isn’t a soundtrack:

You can hear several of the tracks on YouTube.

reply to  Danielm80
Mon, Jul 28, 2014 8:11pm

LOL. You shill!!

MaryAnn Johanson
reply to  LaSargenta
Tue, Jul 29, 2014 9:43pm

As far as I can tell, all the songs in the film were written specifically for the film.

Sun, Aug 03, 2014 6:49pm

Right. We just saw this. Great movie about making something worth making.

I won’t, however, be buying the soundtrack… I’d be too worried Adam Levine’s songs would be on it. Damn they were horrible!! I keep trying to like Maroon 5, now I know why I can’t.

Knightley is fantastic. I loved the ending(s). And, aside from everything you said –which I’m in total agreement about– I wanted more CeeLo Green!