BEGIN AGAIN (NC16)
104 minutes/Opens tomorrow/***1/2
The story: Dan (Mark Ruffalo) is a washed-up music producer who gets fired from the label he set up. Gretta (Keira Knightley) is a songwriter nursing the wounds of a break-up with singer boyfriend Dave (Maroon 5's Adam Levine). They both get a second chance when Dan produces her album guerilla-style in and around New York City.
For all the doubters out there, take note: Knightley can sing.
The film begins in a small pub in the East Village where a reluctant Gretta gets up on stage to perform a song she wrote. She is defensively hunched over her guitar as, around her, conversation continues to flow and ebb. And then she begins to sing.
It is a pivotal scene to sell the movie and Knightley nails it, from the mix of vulnerability and defiance to her very credible singing voice. After blockbusters such as the Pirates Of The Caribbean films (2003-2007) and lush period dramas such as Atonement (2007), it is nice to see her in a captivating contemporary role.
The audience also gets to watch the scene from Dan's point of view as he adds other instruments to the mix in his mind, turning a spare track into a lush number. He remains an idealist passionate about music even as his personal and professional lives get messy.
While Gretta and Dan share a connection, one is grateful that writer-director John Carney (Once, 2007) never shoehorns a romance into the proceedings. Unlike the recent drama-turnedunconvincing-romance Words And Pictures (2014), Begin Again recognises that life is rarely that neat.
Dan has an estranged spouse (Catherine Keener) and a prickly teenage daughter (Hailee Steinfeld) in tow, while Gretta is still working through her break-up with Dave.
Adding to the authenticity, this music-industry drama features several music stars, including hip-hop artist Mos Def as Dan's business partner and singer-songwriter-producer CeeLo Green as, well, a music star.
The coup here is definitely the movie debut of Levine, frontman of pop-rock band Maroon 5. Initially unrecognisable when he first appears as Gretta's loving boyfriend with a pair of geeky glasses and his face clean-shaven, he eventually turns into a douchebag rock god in a sporting case of art imitating life.
But the movie is interested less in music superstardom than the first love of music. It mostly focuses on Gretta and Dan making music together, capturing beautifully the joy and excitement of creating something new as they record in alleyways and on rooftops, even roping in kids playing nearby to sing on a chorus.
While the conceit of Knightley as Gretta releasing an album is not carried over into real life, she does sing on several numbers on the soundtrack, like Gwyneth Paltrow did for the country music drama Country Strong (2010).
Despite the blandly banal title, Begin Again turns out to be an engaging musical treat.