Begin Again PosterDirected by John Carney

Starring Keira Knightley and Mark Ruffalo

Despite my complete lack of musical talent — or maybe because of it — I’m a sucker for the “songwriter/creative process” kind of film, and Begin Again falls squarely into the Once genre. And, like that film — also directed by John Carney — music is the underlying language that drives the characters.

The film opens with Gretta (Keira Knightley) having been dragged up to an open mic, getting discovered by a record executive, Dan (Mark Ruffalo). Neither of them are at their best; Gretta has just been dumped by her long-time boyfriend and up-and-coming rock star Dave (Adam Levine), and Dan is just a mess of a human being, having just been fired from the indie record label he founded years before for various reasons.

Even though they’re both at the end of their respective ropes, music serves to be both a life preserver and a common bond for them. Gretta doesn’t trust Dan — and as drunk and disheveled as he is for this first meeting, she’s well within her rights not to — or believe he’s got anything to offer that she would want. She is, however, at a “what the hell do I have to lose?” moment in her life and takes the chance.

Just to put it out there – Keira Knightley can sing. She doesn’t have a voice that will blow you away with its power, and it’s not “unrealistically” good, but it’s a sweet, simple, airy voice (close to Harriet Wheeler’s from the 1990’s group The Sundays, if that helps) that fits the material and mood of the film. Her character’s stance of making music for music’s sake could have been easily overdone into obnoxiousness in a less-deft film. Here, it’s not a battle cry as much as a simple part of her character’s makeup.

For his part, Levine sells the part of the “just arrived” rock star, otherwise known as “everything that’s wrong with the music industry,” very well. His performance and the direction, however, is subtle enough to keep him just this side of being cartoonish. There’s a great observation about the correlation of his facial hair and levels of douchebaggery.

Begin Again doesn’t take the lazy way out with characters “meeting cute” and falling in love quickly there after — the movie never quite veers into “romantic comedy” territory. The characters here are more complicated than that, and they play off each other in interesting ways. There’s no “moment” that makes the difference for any of their lives. There are just moments here and there that shape their trajectories. Lovely moments with shared headphones and shared playlists, drunken songwriting and recording guerrilla style around locations in New York.

In the final analysis, it’s all about music — writing it, making it, abusing it and examining the state of today’s music industry, where artistic concerns are secondary to product and packaging.

Random Observations:

• This is just a bit of a professional gripe — an album is released in this film and it is stressed that all the musicians will profit from it. There is absolutely no mention of who designed the album cover. Graphic designers gotta eat too, y’know.

• While we were watching our quiet indy film, the theater next door was showing the latest Transformers film, sometimes giving us the feeling that while our characters were talking on the New York streets, Optimus Prime was getting a robo-prostate exam three blocks away.

(This review first appeared at http://moviemeltdown.bravesites.com/entries/general/begin-again)