BEGIN AGAIN, the new comedy-drama/musical from Irish director John Carney opened the 26th Galway Film Fleadh when it was screened in the Town Hall Theatre on Tuesday.
In Begin Again, Carney returns to the same theme from the surprise indie hit Once - the belief that music can form connections between people of different classes and nationalities.
The incredible cast reads more like a guest list at the Grammys then a cast list - Cee lo Green and Mos Def make appearances, and there is a surprisingly good performance from Adam Lavine.
Keira Knightley is an actress who relies on a good director to get a great performance out of her and thankfully Carney is more than up to the task. She delivers her best performance to date playing a vulnerable but confidnet young musician.
Greta (Knightley), a singer-songwriter from London, is ready to leave New York and her dreams behind. We catch up with her miserable year through flashbacks which culminates in her being cheated on and then dumped. Before she departs she is convinced to play one more song at a open mic night by her busker friend Steve (James Cordon).
In the audience is drunk and recently fired music producer Dan (Mark Ruffalo). After hearing her sing, Dan is convinced he has the singer he ha been looking to sign and hopefully win his job back. Carney takes this hackneyed ‘a star is born’ story (like Once) and its simple ‘boy meets girl’ premise and turns it into a modern musical.
Dan convinces Greta to stay in New York and cut a demo for him. Both being broke, they decide to make an ambient sound album throughout New York City in lieu of hiring a studio. Her voice, accompanied by the sirens and shouts of New York with a band of students creates an exciting new sound and soon she is in high demand from Dan’s old employers and her old boyfriend. Like all musicals, the songs often seems contrived, but again, like all musicals, when the songs are good you don’t care.
Begin Again is more polished film than Carney’s previous efforts - which could be seen as shame considering the charm and creativity of his past work - but the director is not wasteful with the larger budget. The songs, written by Gregg Alexander, do not have the emotional gravitas Glen Hansard and Marktéta Irglová put into Once’s lo-fi ballads, but there are some really great numbers here and Knightly performs them admirably. Watching her, you have to wonder how we have never seen her sing on screen before.
The supporting cast is also fantastic. James Corden’s performance reminds us his career lies in acting, not hosting rubbish chat shows on Sky digital. Hailee Steinfeld (as Dan’s teenage daughter Violet) thankfully seems to be getting her career back on track after several missteps since her phenomenal debut in True Grit. The frayed father-daughter relationship shows Dan’s inability to relate to modern teenage culture which probably led to his struggles with work and breaking into the key youth market.
The chemistry between Dan and Greta is the movie’s real strength. The director wisely avoids taking his leads down the romantic path. They develop a platonic male/female friendship virtually unseen in modern cinema. Through this we see Dan attempt to mend his marriage with Violet’s mother (Catherine Keener). We see Greta come to terms with what happened within her relationship. These are all done in a mature realistic tone rarely seen in this genre.
Calling Begin Again a romantic-comedy seems like cheapening the film, but there are real laugh out loud scenes and moments of genuine heartbreak. It seems Carney will have a long career ahead of him, whether it is making low budget charming indie films in Ireland or making big budget studio movies in Hollywood. I personally hope it is a lot of both.