John Carney scored with his Dublin set musical drama Once several years back. It was made on the smell of an oily rag however caught fire with audiences looking for authenticity in their modern day musical. The film won an academy award for best song and signalled a filmmaker who had a rare gift to lift the tired musical genre into the modern day. His seventh feature is a more mature work, blessed with two outstanding leading actors and original songs by New Radicals lead singer Gregg Alexander that ignite the narrative.
Mark Ruffalo in worn down mode plays Dan a once great music innovator who has fallen on hard times. He drinks to excess, wears suits that need an ironing, is estranged from his wife and daughter who herself dresses like Jodie Foster from Taxi Driver. He basically fits the star is born cliche of a once great man in serious decline. In response to his record company partner firing him, he protests, “How can he fire me when I set the fucking thing up”. But in a bar he discovers the beautiful and talented Gretta played by Knightley. “That’s some song you’ve got there.” She retorts “I’m not Judy Garland off a Greyhound bus.” The Star is Born motif in full bloom. Infact her pop star boyfriend has recently broken her heart, a telling scene in their apartment is brilliantly played by Knightley who has become a bona fide actor blessed with a fine voice.
The two broken hearted dreamers devise a plan to record an album on the streets of New York, cue more location shooting than a Sidney Lumet film. “Every song in a different location” frames the concept and the story. Carney brings out the steadicam to create authenticity and the music lifts “banal scenes invested with meaning”. Adam Levine, James Corden, Hailee Steinfeld, Mos Def and Catherine Keener round out an exceptional supporting cast.
Begin Again though not particularly original in story design, feels fresh and alive. Carney keeps the action moving, kudos to cinematographer Yaron Orbach for imbuing the New York locales with an earthy romanticism and Production Designer Chad Keith and Art Director Anne Goelz for their innovative use of the New York locations. Ruffalo and Knightley wandering through the streets of NY listening to a mixed tape of Frank Sinatra and Stevie Wonder is a cracker. The film has several of these moments that make it soar. Carney knows it all about the music and Knightley can belt out a tune.