Movie review: “Begin Again” plays a love song to music

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From the July 3, 2014 edition

With his 2006 breakout “Once,” Irish director John Carney tells a love story through — and about — music. His latest film, “Begin Again,” again works in that vein. And, though it’s a bit more of a cheesy pop song, it still works.

And as a pop song, “Begin Again” feels so familiar that you can almost sing along after a few bars, although the success for me lies in when it isn’t conforming to the expectations of a Hollywood love story.

When a friend cajoles Gretta (Keira Knightley) to perform one of her songs onstage, she reluctantly agrees. “This song is new,” she introduces. “It’s for anyone who has ever been alone in the city.”

Dan (Mark Ruffalo) is among the attendees in this NYC bar. He happens to be the founder of a record label that’s fallen from success, and he hears something in Gretta’s song, leading to an awkward and boozy introduction. “Are you really an A&R man?” Gretta asks. “You look like a homeless person.”

They find an unlikely pairing, rooted in shared heartache and a love of music. When his partners at the label don’t share Dan’s enthusiasm, he decides to record the album himself, using the locales of New York City as his studio.

“Begin Again” is another sweet love letter from Carney to the healing power of songwriting. Knightley’s Gretta uses it to work out her pain from a recent breakup with her former songwriting partner who has gone on to stardom (Adam Levine, perhaps already typecast as a douchebag).

A lot rides on how you feel about the lead actors. I find both Knightley and Ruffalo to be consistently endearing, and this is no exception. Ruffalo’s drunken bluster covers up some scars from his personal failings. Knightley finds the right blend of toughness and vulnerability.

The film also walks a fine line with the kinship Gretta and Dan experience often hinting at romance. I found myself rooting for one outcome on that front — I won’t spoil which — and the film has a lot riding on that. I think it made the right choice. Regardless, for music lovers, it’s a sweet tune.

Photo courtesy of The Weinstein Company