It's about writing music, singing music, playing music, arranging music, producing music, recording music, selling music.
It's also about various ways to sell out. Or not to sell out.
If you like music, you will like this movie. Mark Ruffalo (fellow Cheesehead, from Kenosha) is terrific as always. He's well-employed but the best-kept secret in Hollywood as far as I'm concerned.
Keira Knightley is lovely and so very Audrey Hepburn-esque in her ladylike frocks or tucked-in blouses with high-waisted slacks and loose-fitting trouser legs. She's a human clothes hanger with soul. The look she gives Mark Ruffalo at the end of the film is one never to be forgotten. I loved her advice to Hailey Steinfeld's teen character - to not dress as if she's "easy."
The movie brought to mind one of my favorite films, "High Fidelity." In that movie, John Cusack's character philosophizes about how pop music expresses every emotion and event in his life...in fact, he organizes his record albums that way, chronologically, by what was going on his life when the records came out.
"Begin Again" is like "High Fidelity" in that it's about pop music, not glorious stuff like Beethoven's Ninth that lasts for centuries. Pop music, for all its transience, has power in our lives. There's a fun scene in the movie where the two lead characters share each other's playlists as they roam New York streets. It's as if writer-director John Carney knew that audiences would agree with their choices of Sinatra's "Luck Be a Lady Tonight" and "As Time Goes By" as sung by Dooley Wilson in "Casablanca."
Another favorite scene: when we see what's inside Ruffalo's's mind as he imagines bringing Knightley's song to life with full arrangement: instruments come to life and play around her as she sings, alone on a stage, with her guitar.
Knightley's voice was a surprise: gentle and high, childlike, but not as breathy as, for instance, what's vogue among French singers à la Carla Bruni.
Another surprise: Adam Levine wearing geek eyeglasses. (They don't stay on his face for long.) I didn't recognize him at first. He was in few scenes but did a fine job as an actor. Best, he got to use his high voice to great advantage in a significant plot-turning scene at the end. (I was irritated when that particular musical phrase stuck in my head as I left the theatre, instead of Knightley's more pleasing vocals.)
Director Carney nods to Woody Allen's "Manhattan" as Ruffalo and Knightley roam from New York neighborhoods to some of the city's better-known tourist attractions. The scenes, superimposed on terrific original music, form another cinematic love letter to the great city. It ain't Gershwin but it's good.
There's more to the movie than music, of course - there are two stories of love and loss, and paths that cross. I found myself rooting for a couple of different outcomes...and I was both pleasantly and ruefully surprised by the ending.
Writer-director John Carney also brought us the film "Once," which you might remember as another musical story with a mix of messages about love and loss. There seem to be no pat answers in a Carney movie. And isn't that refreshing?
Teacher Gail's Movie Grade: A
Gail Grenier is the author of Calling All Horses, Dog Woman, Don't Worry Baby, and Dessert First, all available on Amazon.com.