The Aisle Seat - Movie Reviews by Mike McGranaghan
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THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan

"BEGIN AGAIN"

Begin Again

It's been quite a while since a movie sent me out of the theater feeling as joyful as Begin Again did. Written and directed by John Carney (Once), this is the kind of film that lifts your spirits. If you've had a bad day or are generally feeling down, it will cheer you up. If you're already feeling happy, it will make you even happier. That's not exaggeration or hyperbole. Begin Again combines a meaningful story of redemption with some great, irresistible musical sequences. The mixture is profoundly entertaining.

Mark Ruffalo plays Dan, a music-industry executive who hasn't signed a successful act in years. His business partner, Saul (Yasiin “Mos Def” Bey), fires him from the company they formed together. Dan's home life isn't much better. He's estranged from wife Miriam (Catherine Keener) and unable to build a meaningful relationship with teenage daughter Violet (Hailee Steinfeld). One evening, Dan gets drunk and stumbles into a bar. A singer is onstage. Her name is Gretta (Keira Knightley), and she's been pushed up there against her will. The audience doesn't respond to her song, but Dan envisions an arrangement in his head, effectively visualized by having various instruments added one at a time, despite no one being onstage with Gretta to play them. She's on to something with her music. He introduces himself afterward, and before long they are working together on a guerrilla demo tape, recorded at various outdoor locations around New York City. Gretta is reluctant to pursue stardom too much, though; her rocker ex-boyfriend Dave (Maroon 5 frontman Adam Levine) dumped her after getting a taste of fame. Regardless of whether she gets a record deal, the process of making music with Dan proves healing to both of them.

The original title of Begin Again was Can a Song Save Your Life? While that moniker might be a little clumsy, it's also an accurate representation of what makes the film special. This is a story about the healing power of music. Gretta's songwriting is inspired by her relationship with Dave and its subsequent end, while Dan is inspired by her honesty and sincerity. If they can pull off a good demo tape, it could help her move on and also revive his career. Begin Again isn't about what actually happens, though, but rather about how these two people cling to a shared dream during a period of mutual turmoil. The longer they record, the more we get the sense that the outcome doesn't matter. They've found each other as creative soul mates, and doing something special is its own reward.

The performances drive this idea home. Mark Ruffalo brings his unique sensibility to the role of the disgraced record exec trying to prove himself once more. Ruffalo, as he did in The Kids Are All Right, beings unusual speech patterns and mannerisms to the character, making Dan almost hyperactive in his desire to nurture Gretta's songs to full fruition. It's a great acting choice. He also gets some calmer, more sensitive scenes with Hailee Steinfeld, and the two create a believable dynamic of parent and child struggling to find common ground. Keira Knightley, if we're being honest, is a serviceable singer at best, which is one of the movie's few hitches, but she brings so much heart and soul to Gretta that it really doesn't matter. As her music develops, Gretta goes from being a wallflower type to being the kind of artist who positively glows when performing. Knightley makes that transition pop, turning her character into someone whose journey we become entirely invested in. She and Ruffalo have a nice, offbeat chemistry, best seen in an especially sweet sequence in which Gretta and Dan spend a day roaming the city, listening to one another's iPod playlists. Adam Levine, meanwhile, makes a more-than-respectable screen debut. Then again, he does have some credibility as a rock star. Levine performs the film's signature song, the stunning “Lost Stars,” and he sings the you-know-what out of it.

In Once, John Carney showed an ability to create magical, seemingly spontaneous musical sequences. That same skill is on full display in Begin Again. Having Dan and Gretta record in alleyways and on subway platforms and rooftops gives him the opportunity to manufacture moments that have an energetic, lively, unpredictable atmosphere. It really feels as though the musicians are covertly setting up shop and recording. The songs, most of them co-written by Gregg Alexander (formerly of “You Get What You Give” band New Radicals) are quite literally toe-tapping. Be prepared to buy the soundtrack when the movie is over. In traditional musicals, people burst into complex song-and-dance numbers. Although more grounded in reality, the numbers here are every bit as infectious.

The situation between Dan and Miriam would have benefited from a little more development, but on the whole, Begin Again is a wonderful movie from start to finish. Alternately funny, touching, insightful, and inspirational, it understands the power that music – and creativity in general – can have, particularly during times of vulnerability or distress. Yes, a song really can save your life.

( 1/2 out of four)

Post-script: After initially reviewing Begin Again, I found that it stayed with me for months. I couldn't stop thinking about it. This being the case, I watched it again in December 2014 and decided that this should really be a 4-star review.


Begin Again is rated R for language. (This is a travesty. It should be PG-13.) The running time is 1 hour and 40 minutes.


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