Begin Again shows the brilliance of John Carney at work but this film should have been an Oscar contender upon the 2014 theatrical release.
John Carney isn’t the first person you’d think of when it comes to making a love letter to New York. And yet, this is exactly what he’s done by way of a musical comedy. How many people would have the genius idea of recording an album all over New York City? Go ahead and try to answer the question–I’ll wait.
Dan Mulligan (Mark Ruffalo) is a record-label exec on the decline. He’s at the right place at the right time and his path soon intersects with the musician who will turn his luck around. Gretta James (Keira Knightley) just happens to be performing during a singer-songwriter night at the same East Village bar where Dan is drinking alcohol. I like Carney’s approach here in that we get Dan’s backstory as to how he ended up in the bar. Not long after this, we see Gretta’s backstory with Dave Kohl (Adam Levine) while she’s mulling over Dan’s offer. Through discovering Gretta, Dan finds a way to spend time with his daughter, Violet (Hailee Steinfeld), and estranged wife, Miriam (Catherine Keener).
If not for Dave getting a major record deal and moving to NY with college sweetheart Gretta, things could have been different. Well, for one, there’s the fact that he cheated with her while on tour. Dan just happens to meet Gretta at just the right time because her best friend, Steve (James Corden), dragged her out that night. You’d try to cheer your friend up, right? But anyway, we learn a lot about them through the backstory. People can say what they will about non-linear stories but the narrative approach is why this film works so beautifully. Plus, Dan gets redemption at the end. Dave, not so much. It’s good that he performed the original arrangement of “Lost Stars” but he never should have recorded a different arrangement!
There’s certainly something to be said here about music and how the artists see it. Gretta writes a song as a ballad and sees it one way. Dave then decides to commercialize it–but really sell out–because he loves sharing the song with an audience. He loves how the audience reacts to it with a different kind of energy. And then we get to the differences between Dan and Saul (Yasiin Bey). Once partners at Distressed Records, the two clearly have a falling out with each other. They don’t see things in the same way and mind you, the film didn’t premiere until September 2013 in Toronto. Maybe this is John Carney’s way of offering commentary about the music industry. He’s certainly no stranger to experience! At the end of the day, Gretta doesn’t sign and uploads the album online with Dan.
When Saul doesn’t allow Gretta to record a demo, Dan gets the outside-the-box idea to just record it all around NYC. I love it because it’s such a genius idea. He brings on a few session musicians for the album. Gretta even gets Dan and Violet to play music on one of the songs while Miriam takes photos. Meanwhile, Troublegum (CeeLo Green), a rapper Dan once discovered, offers to pay a few of the musicians, too.
Carney structures the narrative in a way that’s similar to 1954’s A Star Is Born and his own film, Once. This isn’t the type of film where characters sing music all of a sudden but rather it’s feeding into the story itself. Mark Ruffalo and Adam Levine may have been first choices from the beginning but it’s hard to imagine watching this film without Keira Knightley in the cast. Once upon a time, filmmakers were thinking of Adele or Scarlett Johansson. The Black Widow star had once been attached at one point.
One thing I appreciate about the structure is that Carney could have made it a love story between Dan and Gretta. Instead, he doesn’t. Dan eventually gets redemption, gets to know his daughter, and moves back in with his family. Gretta, meanwhile, ends up uploading the album shortly after riding her bike through New York. Carney leaves us somewhat of an idea of how her career will turn out by selling 10,000 albums on the first day. Even though it’s not a love story, they have a way of changing each other’s life through their love of music.
Keira Knightley had been looking for a film where she didn’t have any emotional turmoil or die. There are some emotions at play here but it isn’t a heavy drama by any means. I’d say she found the right project because this film hits all the notes. Begin Again offers a showcase for both Knightley’s musical and comedic talents. The film also allows for a solid leading performance from Mark Ruffalo, too.
It’s been some time since I’ve rewatched the film. I spent my Saturday night rewatching Begin Again, which marked my first pandemic viewing of the film. It blows me away now as much as it did when I first watched it on the big screen. It takes a really special film to not only keep my attention in my apartment but stop me from reaching for my phone or checking the time. Begin Again commands your attention from start to finish even as scenes play during the credits. This film is just so beautiful and again, it’s hitting all the right notes. I still cannot believe that it didn’t contend in more categories at the Oscars. Best Original Song was a given but this film should have contended for Best Picture, directing, screenwriting, acting, and more.
In a perfect world, Begin Again would have been up for Best Picture and more.
DIRECTOR/SCREENWRITER: John Carney
CAST: Keira Knightley, Mark Ruffalo, Hailee Steinfeld, Adam Levine, James Corden, Yasiin Bey, CeeLo Green, and Catherine Keener