“Begin Again”
It’s billed as a romance, and the trailers imply that stars Keira Knightley (29 years old) and Mark Ruffalo (47 years old) form the unlikely pairing. But fortunately, that’s not the way it plays out. “Begin Again” is really about romancing the music.
Mark Ruffalo plays Dan, a middle-aged man who seems kinda out of control. He takes nips from his flask in the glove box on his way to picking up his daughter from school. He actually takes her to a bar, and drinks some more, then drags her to a business meeting where he shows up drunk, disheveled, obstreperous, caustic, and disruptive. He gets away with it, temporarily, because it’s his own company, a record label that he co-founded several years ago, but his sober and sobering partner is even now arranging the squeeze-out. After some big initial success, the company has fallen on hard times, and has missed too many “bets” on new talent.
But Dan still has better instincts than any of them, and he proves it by stumbling into a Greenwich bar and happening upon a singer/songwriter, Greta (Knightley), who just blows him away. Though the long-time flame, and now ex-girlfriend, of an emerging superstar recording artist, Dave (Adam Levine of “The Voice”), Greta’s simple style hearkens back to the old coffeehouse acoustic days. Dan loves the clear unpretentiousness of her voice, but hears arrangements in his head that he thinks could enhance the effect without diminishing the clarity. Before we know it, we have a drummer, a bass player, a keyboardist, and even a cellist and violinist, all struggling but talented musicians. And Dan, with the renewed energy of a formerly-successful man with something to prove, manages to record the ragtag but harmonious band “live” at various venues in New York City, like under the shadow of the Empire State Building, or in an alleyway where children are playing (no problem, just recruit the kids for a backup chorus).
But we aren’t through innovating. The shoestring recording sessions inspire Greta and Dan to offer them, not through traditional record labels, but through online streaming, effectively bypassing the whole industry, which just might be a message in itself.
Meanwhile, the love stories abound, but not always in traditional fashion. The relationship between Dan and his daughter Violet (Hailee Steinfeld) improves, and the fact that she can play a little guitar doesn’t hurt. Dan’s relationship with his estranged wife Miriam (Catherine Keener) also improves, but as for Greta and Dave, not so much. Some betrayals are beyond repair.
Though the language is definitely R-rated, another surprise is the distinct lack of sexuality/nudity scenes, and even a light admonition from Greta to Violet about not needing to “dress like a tart” to attract boys: “leave something to the imagination.” (Wow, is the pendulum really swinging back toward more modest female apparel?). But there’s a certain luminescence, even exuberance, to this film that’s also a tribute to great music and a valentine to New York City , with all its flawed genius.
“Begin Again” does not exactly deliver what the pre-advertising promises, but what it does present is something even better: a nuanced modern urban story with some good acting and some very good musical performances.
Dr. Ronald P. Salfen, Minister, St. Stephen’s Presbyterian Church, Irving , Texas