Serious musical dramas in the filmic setting had its beautiful peak around the time of The Sound of Music – a production with grandiose illumination never to be seen again, or appreciated, by the box office crowd. Exhuming the spirit of The Sound of Music, in this still-undefined Hollywood age, seemed, on the face of it, a very risky venture for director John Carney. Still more risky was to remake that spirit with an alternative rock feel, when there are any number of genres that provide more fuel to the musical fires. Yet Carney, Exclusive Media, the indie outfit Likely Story, a mixed bunch of musical misfits, and Keira Knightley went ahead and did it. (Have you ever wondered what it would be like to see Maroon 5’s Adam Levine and rapper CeeLo in one movie? No? Well, you should see this one to believe it.) The musical romantic comedy (and musical theatre production) Begin Again refuses to be classified, and challenges our perceptions of what good, down-to-earth romantic musicals should be. (Forget Tommy, or Jesus Christ Superstar, or that remake of a tacky John Waters original. And God forbid we factor in the ornery animated ones! You should just lay on the Grease and slide on down to the laundry bin.) It is how High School Musical’s cast could have become, had they decided to grow up and become real people with real issues and real career gambles and debilitating disappointments – and act them out in a new movie.
Quirky to a funky T, the film has several seemingly conflicting textures: rock’n’roll, a film with highly dramatic characterisation, specialty cinema’s soi-distant attitude, an indie film’s short-cuts to deep philosophy, even some cool rap jive courtesy of CeeLo and homies. These are the sort of odds and ends that David Lynch could have made some hoary old gut- and blockbuster out of, but director John Carney takes the more human route and makes a successful marriage out of all of them. In the end, the picture surprisingly recreates a very believable slice of how musical success stories are made in the rich night-time of the NYC club scene. Keira Knightley, as Gretta (an unsigned singer/songwriter), meets the record company executive Dan Mulligan (Mark Ruffalo) one night at a bar in East Village. It is a strange night, with both characters on major soul-searching binges, both coincidentally having had quarrels with their respective lovers. One thing leads to another, and Gretta becomes Dan’s risky new ticket to record label success. Knightley and Ruffalo play off each other’s strength, and make a bewitching combination. It is a Platonic father-daughter thing that nevertheless provides much of the movie’s sparks.
Begin Again hasn’t been too successful in the US box office, which is a gross oversight for its cinema audiences. It is understandable, even if this movie will have reached a significant portion of its audience through downloads to mobile devices or tablets. The sad thing about love stories in Hollywood is that they no longer make the big money, but people like Richard Linklater could often exploit this and come up with the Before Sunrise trilogy. It starts with a sleeper hit, and ends with monster sequels. Keira Knightley, even with her prior stellar success, could become another Julie Delpy (her cult following is still alive and adoring), but Adam Levine is no Ethan Hawke even if he can warble with an uncanny falsetto. The trick was to create the Dan Mulligan character, but this doesn’t make our hearts beat faster. Some good news is that Carney could give Linklater a run for his Silver Bear Award for Best Director in the Berlin filmfest. Some of the film’s highlights is its intimate use of AOR, favouring the college set with some cultured rave-ups and cool happenings; another is the songwriting – the team of Gregg Alexander, Danielle Brisebois, Nick Lashley, Rick Nowels and Nick Southwood is really up there; and what would you expect from an Adam Levine performance – he’s cool on stage, Keira Knightley is, too – and CeeLo Green reciting some rap lyrics is the Big Cat on the Main Drag. Hailee Steinfield shines as Ruffalo’s musically-inclined daughter.