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The opening of writer/director John Carney‘s love song to the passions that drive the musical artist sees a forlorn-looking Gretta James (Keira Knightley) sunk into a worn dingy sofa at the edge of small stage at the back of a dark pub in New York City. A small colorful crowd of hipsters and music lovers are scattered about the room, only some paying attention to a singer on stage, most engaged in conversation and drink. That singer (James Corden) is a friend of Gretta’s, a songwriter he is attempting to coax to come up and perform, which she seems unwilling to do. With a little urging from the crowd, she relents and soon replaces him on stage, settling onto a lone barstool swathed in a cone of warm sallow light.
She plays a simple song called “A Step You Can’t Take Back” about the end of a relationship after a lover cheats, the entire song with just the strumming of her guitar. It’s a gentle, quiet performance that is tender but unrefined and she promptly rushes of stage as the approving patrons offer some soft applause. Meanwhile, the camera pans over to a smiling, disheveled man standing in the middle of the bar looking as if he’s seen something no one else has. In fact, he has.
We then cut from the bar to a sloppy-looking bedroom and appear now to be following this man, a guy named Dan Mulligan (Mark Ruffalo), who apparently is waking up late. After a failed effort to remain so, he defiantly goes back to bed. In time though, he manages to get himself up and we learn he has a confused and angsty teenaged daughter (Hailee Steinfeld) from a divorced marriage and he is also being bought out of his struggling independent record company by his partner Saul (Mos Def). It’s not a good day, and he ends it by going to a bar to get drunk, where we suddenly realize it is actually the same bar and the same night from the start and now instead of through Gretta’s perspective, we are witnessing it from his. But this time it’s different. Yes, the song she sings is the same, but filtered through Dan’s gifted mind, becomes a work far more layered and rich. You see, as he listens to her sing, he adds accompaniment from the assorted instruments standing untouched around her. And he likes what he hears.
The magic of this little moment is how well Carney revisits and reinterprets what we had already forgotten, giving the start another go around with great significance. It establishes that this wreck of a man, who seems at the very edge of catastrophe, is possessed of a singular great talent. It’s presentation is also very clever as the camera shifts away from Gretta first to the upright piano on her left, stage right. With a nod of Dan’s head, and in tempo with the tune, the keys being to play by invisible hands, and just next to that, center stage behind the singer, the drum kit illuminates and after a fill, picks up a beat where to its right, a cello follows through, the two also played with hands unseen. All the while, a buzzed Dan sways in time with the tune with a look of such content, as if all the answers to troubled questions have finally been found.
Dan is hearing a finished piece (as are we), crafting from Gretta’s foundation, a song he feels in his gut is something special. We’ve already had a hint of this gifted ear in a short sequence as he drove to work, tossing demo CDs out his car window in disgust at the overly-produced, soulless corporate contemporary sound the music biz is awash in, and we realize he’s looking for a real musician, a songwriter and person moved by their own art. In Gretta, he finds it.
Begins Again is a simple, touching story, one that, like many of the genre, finds inspiration in the passion of those committed to their calling. Filled with great music and some even better performances, this isn’t a romantic comedy, despite its packaging. While it offers no real challenge for the viewer and is never inclined to be anything but a well-structured piece, much like a pop song, it is surprisingly satisfying and genuine. There are a number of good moments throughout, especially with Ruffalo, but it is at its start, when a producer with true talent recognizes a singer ready to be discovered that is its best. It’s a great moment.
Director: John Carney
Writer: John Carney
Stars: Keira Knightley, Mark Ruffalo, Adam Levine, Hailee Steinfeld