John Carney’s 2007 film Once was an honest-to-god indie sensation. Made for just $160,000 and starring real-life musicians Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová, it charmed audiences everywhere, won an Academy Award for best song, and spawned a Broadway musical adaptation. It was an amazing feat: a small movie with a giant heart that earned global acclaim — which puts a lot of pressure on Carney’s follow-up Begin Again, which opens in limited release this Friday and wider the week after.
Begin Again is another story about musicians and romantic yearning, only this time, it’s set in New York instead of Dublin and features movie stars (Keira Knightley and Mark Ruffalo), along with whatever you want to call Adam Levine. It’s a daring move to head right back into the territory of your breakout hit, and Begin Again does play like a remix of Once, slicker and brighter, shinier but less scrappy. In revisiting similar themes and characters, Carney also struggles with some baggage about working on a bigger canvas. Here’s a look at how the two films are the same as much as they’re different.
And unlike the characters in Once, they actually have names. There’s Dan (Mark Ruffalo), the disgraced co-founder of a record label whose life has become an alcoholic haze since the fracturing of his marriage to Miriam (Catherine Keener) and his drifting away from daughter Violet (Hailee Steinfeld). Then, there’s Greta (Keira Knightley), a songwriter who follows her budding rock star boyfriend Dave (Adam Levine) to the U.S., where he promptly leaves her for someone else.
The pair’s first encounter, which is presented from both perspectives, takes place at an open mic night where Greta’s friend Steve (James Corden) bullies her into performing. Dan hears magic in the song, and cajoles a hesitant Greta into letting him produce an album with her, pulling on all the connections in his otherwise defunct professional career.
Dan and Greta fall in love a little, but they’re more enchanted by what they’re making together than with each other, in what’s perhaps the best parallel to Once — life is too complicated for this to be a simple romance. Things happen far more easily for Dan and Greta, and the movie’s startlingly low on conflict, but Ruffalo and Knightley (who shows off a strong singing voice) are endearingly aglow as they get their band together and record in various locations around the city (though why it would ever be a good idea to do so on a noisy subway platform is left unexplained).
Like Once, Begin Again is unabashedly romantic about music while depicting it as a process. The film was originally called Can a Song Save Your Life?, an ungainly but more memorable title that indicates just how much faith Carney continues to have in the medium.
The collaboration between Dan and Greta pulls them both out of despair and gives their lives meaning and a center, and in turn the movie allows its musical moments to swell and fill the frame in montages in which Greta and their makeshift band are recording, in a sequence in which she and Dan listen to music and walk around the city, and in that first performance at the open mic night.
That pivotal scene is given a nice spin both times we see it — Greta loses herself in her song while the bar’s patrons continue drinking and chatting, and Dan sees the instruments behind her rise up as if played by invisible musicians providing a rich arrangement he can only hear in his head. And just how much emotion can be communicated through a tune plays a major role in Greta’s relationship with David. It’s through listening to a new song of his that she realizes he’s cheated on her, and later, she leaves a breakup song on his voicemail in a sequence that should be intolerably twee, but is somehow instead poignant and moving, conveying feelings that words alone couldn’t.
In Once, the Girl’s guileless approach to the Guy and to his songwriting introduces him to a new sense of possibility as they write and eventually record a humble demo together. But the big time is much closer in Begin Again, and the script, which is written by Carney, is preoccupied with authenticity. There’s a defensiveness to its depiction of people who sell out versus people who keep it real that’s a bummer, a persistent sour note in a movie that otherwise recaptures the buoyant openness and brimming sincerity of its predecessor.
Dan, who’s basically shirked his job for ages, hurls more commercial recordings out of his car in scorn and tells his long-suffering business partner Saul (Mos Def) that his ideas to innovate are terrible, that the music business will be fine despite the chaos it’s facing, and that maybe “music should be free.” When Dan approaches Greta at the bar and tells her she’s talented and she’s beautiful, she snips that she thinks “music is about ears, not eyes.” She has to be begged to perform and eventually learns the magic of having listeners connect with her music, but not before dismissing the very idea of rock star aspirations. These moments bring out the least likable qualities in the otherwise luminous leads.
Dan and Greta’s judgmental eye-rolling about the business side of things is impressively snotty in an otherwise sweet movie, and it’s worse for having CeeLo Green play a successful rapper named Troublegum who’s an old friend of Dan’s, and who helps the pair out in their quest. He conveniently solves issues of raising some funding and doing promotion so that the heroes don’t have to dirty their hands with such uncreative processes.
Once was set along Dublin’s more bedraggled corners, which it still managed to find enchantment in, as the Girl pulled her broken vacuum down the street while she spoke to the Guy. But Begin Again is head over heels for New York in the way of someone who’s just moved there. Stoops and benches outside parks, Times Square and back alleys — it’s not the New York of a native, but that’s part of the appeal. Greta brings fresh eyes to the city as well as new music to her relationship with Dan, and the movie’s giddy in its depiction of the area. For the ups and downs of its musical story, Begin Again’s affair with the city doesn’t falter — it’s the least complicated kind of love the film has to offer.