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precarious since 1997 | by maryann johanson

Begin Again movie review: up tempo

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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