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New Release Review - Begin Again

A down on his luck record producer teams up with a broken-hearted singer-songwriter.

Directed by: John Carney
Starring: Keira Knightley, Hailee Steinfeld, Mark Ruffalo, Adam Levine, James Corden, Catherine Keener, Yasiin Bey, Rob Morrow, CeeLo Green




Once the head of the hippest record label in New York, Dan (Ruffalo) hasn't had a hit in years, thanks to his refusal to give in to the superficial trappings of today's music scene. After a row with his business partner (Bey), Dan goes on a drunken bender, ending up at an open mic night, where he hears a performance by English singer-songwriter Greta (Knightley). While the rest of the bar ignore her, Dan's ear for talent kicks in and he approaches her about cutting a record. Problem is, Greta plans to leave New York, having gone through a rough breakup with fellow musician Dave (Levine), who has found chart success with an album of songs co-penned with Greta.
"I believe music is for the ears, not the eyes," states Greta at one point during Irish director John Carney's US debut. She's referring to Dan's suggestion that she change her image to something more sexually appealing, but her statement highlights the issue every film-maker faces when attempting to convey the joy of music in a visual medium; how to use images rather than relying solely on the emotional power of music. Few film-makers have answered this question, but Carney manages to pull it off brilliantly in one of the year's standout scenes. 
The movie opens with Greta reluctantly taking to an open mic stage at the behest of fellow ex-pat singer Steve (Corden). The crowd appear disinterested, and Greta exits the stage in low spirits. Later we see the scene repeated, but this time from the drunken perspective of Dan. With his record producer's ear, he imagines a full production complementing Greta's vocals and acoustic strumming. We see the instruments on stage begin to perform of their own accord, as though the invisible man and his friends were indulging in a jam session. While the other patrons merely see a girl with her guitar, Dan sees her unfulfilled potential. It's a moving moment that captures the subjective emotional rush a piece of music can have on a listener.
Technically, Begin Again has its share of issues. There's a lack of narrative thrust, with little in the way of conflict or obstacles for its protagonists to overcome. Despite this, Dan and Greta make for such a charming, and refreshingly platonic, coupling that we drift along on their, and the very film's, enthusiasm. Ruffalo can do the hungover loser-with-potential act in his sleep, but Knightley, who few would consider one of the best actresses of her generation, is the real revelation here, imbuing her character with a mixture of vulnerability and determination. On top of this, she proves a more than capable singer, with a voice reminiscent of nineties songstress Edie Brickell.
How much you appreciate music will likely be the deciding factor when it comes to your enjoyment of Begin Again, as it's a romantic drama whose protagonists are in love, not with each other, but with the music they make together.
7/10


Eric Hillis

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