Dan, a dejected record-label executive in the midst of a midlife crisis, forms a bond with a beautiful and talented female singer/songwriter who is new to Manhattan and previously dated a now-famous musician.
Eight years after breaking into the U.S. market with 'Once,' Irish writer/director/musician John Carney is once again getting our attention with another comedic music-based drama, 'Begin Again.' Because 'Once' was so good, it's impossible to not compare the two. So, how does 'Begin Again' stack up to 'Once?' It's almost as good, but not quite perfect.
My biggest worry with 'Begin Again' was that it would simply re-tell the story of 'Once,' the only difference being the location in which is was set - but that's not at all the case. 'Begin Again' kicks off with a scene that introduces us to Keira Knightley's character, Gretta. In an obviously grumpy mood, she's pressured into taking the stage at an open mic event in a small New York City bar. As she plays her dry acoustic love song, the audience's attention strays and the low sound of chatter breaks her confidence. The tune tanks, she abruptly ends mid-song and takes her seat on an off-stage couch. Amidst the mild courtesy applause from the distracted crowd, one man standing front and center, clapping away with a genuinely astonished look on his face. Considering her faulty performance, we assume that he's only cheering her on because he's drunk and/or he finds her attractive. Now, let's meet that drunk guy.
Cut to that morning. Dan Mulligan (Mark Ruffalo), the drunk from the opening scene, is obviously unhappy. His bushy head of hair is unkempt, he's unshaven and after waking up and starting the day, he goes right back to bed. The only reason he wakes again and actually leaves his dingy apartment is to pick up his daughter (Hailee Steinfeld, 'True Grit') from school and drop her off at his ex-wife's house. On the way home, he stops by his place of work just in case he has a scheduled meeting that he forgot about – which he does. Dan is a music producer for an indie record label that he single-handedly got off the ground in its early days, only he hasn't seen any success since that first big deal. He's been coasting on that one major break, but his boss (Mos Def) isn't having it anymore. With his daughter awkwardly standing there, Dan is fired. He has officially hit rock bottom.
Wifeless, jobless and absolutely broke, Dan's life can't get any worse. He drinks the remainder of the day away, ultimately landing in the dive bar just moments before Gretta's disastrous performance. While everyone else is bored by her debut, Dan hears something else, something more than just her basic acoustic guitar playing skills and her confidence-broken warbling voice. He hears her potential, what her song may sound like if fully produced by him – and it's beautiful! After years and years of unsuccessfully searching out the next big indie artist, Dan finds her on the day that he loses his job. Not only does he have to coax his boss into re-hiring him for this deal, but he has to convince love-sick and heartbroken Gretta into letting him produce her album-to-be.
My only complaint with 'Begin Again' is the structure and flow of the first half of the movie. It isn't horrible and it doesn't ruin the film, but it's definitely problematic. After Dan's persuasive conversation with Gretta, we learn that she's about to head back to England and most likely won't stick around to see Dan's proposition through. It's then that we begin a long flashback that shows how Gretta got to be in New York City and why she's so moody. This lengthy period is crucial to the film and it's just as entertaining as the rest, but it's oddly placed and timed. I don't have a solution for this pacing and narrative structural issue, so I can't begrudge it too much, but it's still mildly problematic.
My second worry with 'Begin Again' was the movie's secondary cast. As if produced by the folks behind Fox's hit musical TV contest series 'The Voice,' both Adam Levine (from Maroon 5) and CeeLo Green (of the duo Gnarls Barkley) have acting roles within the film. Levine's role is quite substantial. Surprisingly, he's not a terrible actor. Having cast musicians before, Carney has certainly shown that he has what it takes to direct non-actor musicians in his films.
Like 'Once,' throughout 'Begin Again,' you'll find yourself wondering, 'Are these two leading characters going to get romantically involved?' While that curious question certainly pushes the film along, also like 'Once,' the music is a major driving factor. Where 'Once' tells its tale through moody indie rock, 'Begin Again' does it though pop music. Mind you, I'm not much of a pop music fan. I hate 90 percent of Maroon 5's music and have only heard two songs performed by CeeLo Green, neither of which were impressive, but after the credits came to close, Mrs. Hickman and I agreed that we needed to order the CD soundtrack from Amazon Prime in that exact moment. Not only are the Adam Levine tracks very good, but those performed by Keira Knightley are also very likeable. Knightley has been pegged as a pretty plain actress that's only capable of doing well in melodramatic period pieces, but she has certainly been proving her worth as of recent. Including 'Seeking a Friend for the End of the World,' 'Anna Karenina' and 'Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit,' she's on a roll that I truly hope doesn't end any time soon.
Although I'm certain that 'Begin Again' will not warrant any sort of awards buzz, that's not going to stop it from being one of my favorite films of the year. It's simple, charming and satisfying. It will leave you feeling good without being manipulative or sappy like most movies that carries the "feel good" label.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
The Weinstein Company has placed 'Begin Again' on a Region A BD-50 in a standard blue Elite keepcase. With it comes a code for redeeming an Ultraviolet copy of the film. Upon inserting the disc into your player, the unskippable Anchor Bay and Weinstein vanity reels are followed by skippable trailers for 'The Sapphires' and '20 Feet From Stardom.' It's worth noting that the Scene Selection portion of the menu allows you to select from both chapters and songs within the film.
'Begin Again' arrives on Blu-ray with a superb 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 video quality that's only lessening quality its very occassional low-budget and lacking indie production value (and lighting).
Ninety-nine percent of 'Begin Again' features perfect, sharp, crystal clear imagery. The individual gray hairs on Mark Ruffalo's head and face – of which there are many – can be seen on a hair-by-hair basis. The textures of clothing and faces can always been seen with clarity. With many scenes set outdoors, there are plenty of opportunities for the inner-city nature to shine. Leaves, grass and water have a gorgeous look about them. Colors pop naturally, from the greens of foliage to the warm red summer dresses that Knightley dons. During a pair of staged concert scenes, the lighting is extra vibrant. The hues that appear on Knightley's face in the opening scene border oversaturation, but don't quite get there; however, the bright overly-vibrant hanging lights behind her do result in oversaturation. Having not seen 'Begin Again' in theaters, I can't say if this was intentional or not, but I assume that it is considering how fantastic the rest of the film looks.
The only true problem that I noticed arise on a couple of occasions was a small issue with black levels and contrast. A lack of lighting (or natural lighting) in dark settings seemed to be the cause. Both instances occur during nighttime scenes set on the streets of New York City. Luckily, they're brief. Aside from those two, there aren't any other faults to be found on this Blu-ray.
Being a movie whose story is based on music and sound, 'Begin Again' carries a fittingly flawless and impressive 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio mix. The non-diegetic tracks (the songs that occur outside the narrative) in the film are mixed to play dynamically throughout the space. The volume plays it loudly and clearly. Being cheery pop music, it picks up the mood – but there's another more noteworthy usage of music here.
The diegetic music (the songs that are performed by or listened to by the characters) in the movie is nothing short of brilliant. Dan decides to record Gretta's demo album in New York City locations, capturing along with her music the sounds of a truly memorable summer. The music is just as dynamic as the non-diegetic songs, but with the addition of natural street sounds – kids playings, horns honking, passing vehicles, birds chirping, etc. – is equally mixed in perfection along with it. Dialog and voices are also just as richly mixed and consistently clear as the music and environmental mix.
The effects that are mixed outside of the diegetic music are just as strong as those mixed within the music. City street effects lighten up the theater space. Subway rides creak and rattle as they would if you were really riding in one. Instances of seamless imaging also appear. I literally can't find a single fault with this lossless audio mix.
While 'Begin Again' may not be as perfect as John Carney's last noteworthy music-filled romantic drama, 'Once,' it's still pretty darn close to featuring that greatness. It's simplistic story is likeable and easy to connect with thanks to natural characters and great performances all around. Keira Knightley shines as a musician and Adam Levine actually does a great job as an actor. AS susal, Mark Ruffalo is great. The video quality is nearly perfect, but the audio quality is stunningly flawless. Only two special features are included, so if the disc is lacking in any area, that's it. For anyone who likes strong indie films, 'Begin Again' is crowd-pleasing must-see.