Begin Again Review: More ‘Once’ With Feeling

Begin Again Keira Knightley

Begin Again was exactly the inspiring, uplifting movie I needed to see this month. It has been a rough summer, so I needed to be reminded that there’s always room for new inspiration and new relationships. Begin Again does it through the vehicle of music but really it’s universal.

At a New York Coffee House, a friend forces Greta (Keira Knightley) to perform one of her songs onstage. It doesn’t seem to bring her out of her shell, but we see Dan (Mark Ruffalo) standing in the middle of the coffeehouse clearly moved by what he heard. Then we learn about everything going wrong in Dan’s life so we can understand the significance of a song giving him hope. Then we learn about all the things going wrong in Greta’s life so she may not be ready for Dan to bet on her.

In broad strokes, this is a story we’ve heard before. Down on their luck underdogs triumph over adversity with their one last shot. Nothing wrong with that story, but it’s in the subtle details that Begin Again is relatable and refreshing. Dan is a record label exec, which is specific, but we all listen to music so we want to root for innovation over safe corporate product. Greta moved to the States with her musician boyfriend Dave (Adam Levine), who not only sold out their music but broke up their relationship. In a crappy rom-com, the story would be Greta finds a new man who completes her even more than the previous man. Luckily, this is a story about how she uses art to heal herself and handle her relationship with maturity.

Begin Again Keira Knightley Adam Levine

Greta and Dan’s relationship is professional. He wants to produce her music and needs it to be a hit because he’s broke and losing his company. Their idea for her album is so innovative the music industry really should take note. It leads to fun set pieces as they record the songs in difficult situations, and a great soundtrack. Their collaboration also shows that often the best relationships we can form are not romantic. Neither Dan nor Greta solve each other’s problems, but what they learn from each other gives them valuable tools to improve their own situations. 

Writer/director John Carney makes music cinematic with the way he shows Dan mentally adding accompaniments to Greta’s song, so we can hear it gradually becoming more produced. That is a great depiction of how artists think, very much akin to the way I can see raw footage or read a script and know how it looks as a finished movie. I happen to prefer acoustic to studio music, but Dan’s plan for the album is actually a clever twist on natural music. It’s also hilarious when Dan listens to bad demos in his car. The demos encompass anything even the most casual listener is sick of in pop music, from the pretentious identity crisis lyrics to the “American Idol” sound.

Begin Again Movie

I love how the movie handles Greta’s relationship to Dave. It has the sensitivity to know that being in someone’s life doesn’t end as simply as a breakup, and the maturity to continue dealing with it after the audience surely wants her to move on. I hope what audiences take away from Greta’s story is that she makes a good decision after taking the time to feel it all out. The movie gives them time to deal with their relationship, rather than forcing it into a double or nothing stunt to determine the fate of the rest of their lives. Dave isn’t a total villain either. It’s easy to understand someone making mistakes on their creative path, and maybe even deserving a second chance. That depends more on the future than the past though.

A bit of Begin Again is pretty on the nose. I literally could not tell if the douchey record exec was Rob Morrow or Patrick Dempsey. It was Rob Morrow, and it’s every cliche of smarmy moneyman with a ponytail, and a few I didn’t even think of. It’s his only scene in the movie, reinforcing his one-dimensionality by refusing to ever see him again. A moustache is the big indicator that Dave has changed, but that’s funny. Idiots really do telegraph their personalities like that.

I mean, I don’t want to spoil the movie but I’m describing this as the feel good movie of the year, so it’s probably safe to assume it doesn’t go into Walk the Line territory of drug overdoses and darkness. I guess I’m saying to trust Begin Again to take you to a good place. I’ve done my best to describe its approach to life and art without giving away the best aspects. I actually wasn’t totally sure where it was going in some regards, so even if you think I’ve tipped my hat to certain resolutions, you might be surprised how Begin Again finds its happiness. 

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Fred Topel is a staff writer at CraveOnline and the man behind Best Episode Ever and The Shelf Space Awards. Follow him on Twitter at @FredTopel.