In 2006, some of us went head over heels for John Carney’s Once, a musical romance about the love of music. It was scrappy and vital; the guy didn’t get the girl, but she got a piano and that was a perfect happy ending. Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova became an offscreen couple and charmed everyone when their song Falling Slowly won an Oscar. Fast forward seven years: Carney has remade Once with more money and bigger stars. Begin Again, indeed.
Begin Again has a lot going for it, and Carney nails a few moments where musicians get lost in the joy of what they’re creating. Mark Ruffalo gives one of his expert portrayals of a lost boy – he’s very good even if you’ve seen him play this role several times already. Keira Knightley is fine as the aspiring musician, although she doesn’t have Hansard’s musical charisma; that’s unfortunate because the film is built on the idea that she’s the real deal. Adam Levine gives a paradoxically un-vain performance as a budding star whose vanity is always right beneath the surface. He makes a great asshole.
Begin Again’s showpiece (this film’s Falling Slowly) comes near the beginning, when Knightley sings A Step You Can’t Take Back for an indifferent crowd in a bar. The first time, we experience the song from her point of view, and the distracted audience becomes our distraction as well. Then Carney repeats the song from Ruffalo’s perspective, and his mind fills in orchestration – strings, keyboards and drums play themselves behind her, and we hear the potential he’s hearing. The film doesn’t hit another high like that, even as Ruffalo and Knightley travel around New York to record live in various settings. Many times we don’t even get to hear those songs – most are overscored by generic montage music. For a movie that wants us to believe we’re witnessing the creation of something transcendent, a little more transcendence would have helped.
Carney’s biggest misstep is to give the film’s climactic song to Levine. We’re supposed to understand that Levine has sold out the purity of Knightley’s songwriting vision in order to have a hit record. The song is played in its entirety, and we see the crowd go wild; it even underscores Ruffalo’s reconciliation with his wife and Knightley’s teary-eyed bike ride through the city. Are we supposed to admire how big Knightley is to walk away from Levine’s character, leaving him with the hit song and his shallow striving? Knightley’s winning moment is shoehorned in during the end credits – unsatisfying for those who have invested in the story. (But perhaps true to life: Levine’s song is the soundtrack’s top selling track on iTunes.)
Underneath Begin Again’s music and romance is a story about how the business of music is killing music. Carney isn’t a skilled enough storyteller to give this much thematic resonance, or even to place it on equal footing with the other plot elements; the punchline is buried in the closing credits. Knightley ultimately sells her album online for a dollar a copy, enraging the music executive who’d dismissed her and then tried to woo her with a 10% royalty deal. (They’d sell the album for $10 and she’d get $1 per copy.) I checked online – I can’t find the Begin Again soundtrack anywhere for a buck. It’s $9.99 on iTunes.