In recording-industry terms the Keira Knightley/Mark Ruffalo musical romance Begin Again is a Difficult Second Album.
Irish writer-director John Carney scored a massive hit with his debut film, the sweetly melancholy 2007 indie love story Once. It transported audiences, won an Oscar, and inspired a smash Broadway spinoff (that starred Tony-winning Ashland native Steve Kazee).
Try following a genius opening shot like that.
Begin Again closely parallels the mismatched partners design of Once while adding new chords to the arrangement.
Down-on-his-luck music exec Dan (Ruffalo) hasn't signed a strong act in years, and his personal life is Dumpster-worthy. He's a fog of disappointments held together by Scotch and sarcasm: Llewyn Davis, The A&R Years.
At a bar on New York's Lower East Side, he sees Gretta (Knightley) strumming a smart, plaintive love song. Imagination afire, he visualizes the unmanned piano, drums and electric bass playing along. His dream team sounds so fine that the corny invisible man combo actually works.
Dan reaches out to her with a business proposal that might be something more. He wants to sign Gretta, but she's not interested. She's heading back to England, having broken up with her suddenly successful musician boyfriend/collaborator, Dave. Maroon 5 frontman Adam Levine looks quite at home in the douchey role.
Dan needs Gretta to resuscitate his career. Gretta needs him for his pushy encouragement and a recording project to take her mind off Dave.
The laws of movie magnetism usually decree that a film's stars will fall in love. Gretta and Dan are such an unlikely package that seems like a longshot. The actors themselves look unsure where their relationship is headed. Knightley brings emotional confusion into sharp, touching focus as the pair bond over nighttime strolls and the shared love of classic pop. Carney flips film clichés to keep us guessing.
Begin Again improves on the typical genre picture with its rueful intelligence, warmth and creative use of music to advance the story. The breakup tune that Gretta leaves on Dave's voice mail is a stinging dope slap of a song (Gregg Alexander of New Radicals composed the original tunes).
Gretta's album project, recorded live over the summer in colorful/seedy outdoors locations, makes New York City a supporting player. They play in alleys, on rooftops, in Central Park rowboats. You never know who'll object to their guerilla-style jamming or unexpectedly join in.
There's a fine roster of music stars in the fold, with Yasiin Bey (aka Mos Def) as Dan's cool cucumber business partner, and CeeLo Green plays a vastly successful early client.
Some viewers might feel cheated that they don't perform and Knightley does. I found her acoustic guitar and breathy vocal work sweet and apt for a songwriter. Some of the songs might drift away, but the acting will stick in your head for days.