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Review: 'Begin Again' is like 'Once' again

Keira Knightley is Gretta, a soulful songwriter and musician who attracts the attention of Dan (Mark Ruffalo), a downtrodden music producer, in Begin Again. Knightley contrasts well with Ruffalo.
Keira Knightley is Gretta, a soulful songwriter and musician who attracts the attention of Dan (Mark Ruffalo), a downtrodden music producer, in Begin Again. Knightley contrasts well with Ruffalo.
Published Jul. 3, 2014

Begin Again begins like a lot of movies about musicians, but because it comes from John Carney, it isn't ordinary for long. Carney is the Irish filmmaker who made Once, a slight romance fortified by music, now a Broadway hit. Begin Again is set in a vastly different place and level of success, but Carney's faith in the emotional power of song remains the same.

Rather than Dublin buskers, the Los Angeles characters in Begin Again are familiar folks. There's Gretta (Keira Knightley), a recent arrival from England with her boyfriend Dave (Adam Levine), who is getting attention as a next big thing. One night, Gretta is coaxed on stage by a friend to perform one of her songs, and nobody cares much except one disheveled, clapping guy.

He's Dan (Mark Ruffalo), a music producer who went all Jerry Maguire at work and has since been drinking it off. Dan co-founded the recording label with a longtime friend (Yasiin Bey, formerly Mos Def) more concerned with marketing ideas than finding new talent. Add in a resentful ex-wife (Catherine Keener) and daughter (Hailee Steinfeld), and Dan's day is ruined.

When he hears Gretta in that reprised moment, Begin Again starts to become something fairly special. As he listens, Dan's imagination starts producing the single, with unmanned instruments behind Gretta coming alive — a bow crossing a cello, a high hat cymbal hissing. Paired with Knightley's sad pixie vocals and Ruffalo's scruffy charm, the enchantment of the scene carries Begin Again a long way.

Dan immediately offers Gretta a recording opportunity, but his connections and finances are limited. They come up with a Once-like idea, taking Gretta's music to the streets of New York, recording in alleys, subways and rooftops. Dan converts his Jaguar into a mobile recording studio, recruiting volunteer musicians and a rhythm section paid for by a hip-hop star (CeeLo Green, in a too-brief role) owing his success to Dan.

These on-the-fly recording sequences are the best aspect of Begin Again, largely because Gregg Alexander's songwriting generates one gorgeous tune after another. The focal piece, Lost Stars, has several incarnations, from the stripped-down soulfulness Gretta intends, to Dave's grossly over-produced version as a pop rock star. Like a Fool is a crushing love lament in which Knightley wrings for sympathy. It's easy to envision Begin Again following Once's path to the legitimate stage.

There's a lot to smile about in Begin Again, especially watching Ruffalo make anything interesting, even when Carney's script goes soft on Dan in the third act. It's a showy role Ruffalo charges through with mumbly humor and more pain than Dan thinks he's revealing. Knightley's ramrod waif is a nice contrast; their chemistry is unmistakable and used by Carney in smarter than usual fashion.

Other aspects of Begin Again aren't as smart, such as Dave's distracting facial hair, measuring his smarm quotient at the moment, and a little too much attention paid to Dan's domestic wreckage. But overall, this is a feel-good, sounds-good movie that I'll happily confess to crushing on, just once.

Contact Steve Persall at persall@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8365. Follow @stevepersall.

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