The fulcrum of BEGIN AGAIN is an original song entitled "Lost Stars." It's first performed in a tiny New York City bar by sometime songwriter Greta (Keira Knightley), who penned it for pop singer Dave Kohl (Adam Levine), her longtime boyfriend until he succumbs to the temptations of stardom and leaves her for another woman.
Where the audience hears a plaintive ballad, soused and struggling A&R agent Dan Mulligan (Mark Ruffalo) hears a potential hit and recruits Greta to revive his wayward livelihood. But when Greta's song is rejected by Dan's former business partner Saul (Yasiin Bey, née Mos Def), Dan quickly conceives a broader, self-produced album project. With Greta on lead vocals (using Knightley's actual voice, which ably carries the tunes), Dan and a backing band of misfits—including Violet (Hailee Steinfeld), Dan's estranged daughter—gallivant around the city, setting up guerilla recording sessions in alleyways, rooftops, subway platforms and other indigenous locales.
What follows is a kind of East Village edition of Hustle & Flow, with Ruffalo channeling a less talented and even more grating incarnation of Llewyn Davis. "Lost Stars" recurs throughout the film, changing keys and arrangements to suit the mood of the moment. But the rest of Greta and Dan's toe-tapping ditties fall far short of their "spirit of the city" preconception. Director John Carney aims to recreate the music-can-save-your-life vibe of his 2006 indie hit Once but is ironically undercut by a bigger budget and mainstream cast.
Indeed, as a conventional movie musical masquerading as an indie flick, Begin Again is full of internal contradictions. It's a love story without any romance. It's a comedy without any genuine laughs. There are deep character conflicts that vanish to the strains of a couple of curative chords.
And it's a screed against an inauthentic, over-commercialized music biz that uses actors who are not averse to summer blockbusters, plus moonlighting pop singers (including CeeLo Green)—in a film that'll be sold by multiplexes and distributed by Harvey Weinstein, for Pete's sake.
This article appeared in print with the headline "The good, the bad and the dreck"