CeeLo Green-Mark Ruffalo-680
Photo Courtesy of Weinstein Company

A sleeper like Once would be a tough act for anyone to follow, but writer-director John Carney’s new musical drama Begin Again stands nicely on its own. It may not feel quite as organic as the 2006 picture that put Carney on the map, but it has a fine cast, good music, and an abundance of charm.

Keira Knightley plays a talented songwriter who has accompanied her boyfriend (Adam Levine) to New York City, where a hit movie soundtrack has launched him on the road to success. Their relationship turns rocky once his career takes off and she winds up singing a song inspired by her heartbreak in a club one night. Down-and-out music producer Mark Ruffalo happens to hear her and becomes convinced that he can make her a star. What’s more, backing her career just might prove to be his salvation.

Begin Again-Keira Knightley
Photo Courtesy of Weinstein Company

Boiled down to a synopsis, Begin Again might not sound terribly original, but Carney has fleshed out his story with wonderful songs and made exceptional use of the City, from rooftops and alleyways to a subway station. The best scenes in the film have an impromptu feel that’s hard to resist. Carney has elicited spontaneous performances from an experienced cast—just as he did with the nonprofessional stars of Once—and has chosen his actors well.

Knightley is an ideal heroine, thoroughly likable and completely credible as a songwriter who cares more about the integrity of her music than she does about fame. (P.S. She sings quite nicely.) Levine, of Maroon 5 fame, also fares well in his first major acting assignment. Ruffalo hits all the right notes as a onetime golden boy of the music business whose life is a mess. There is an innate likability to him that has us rooting for him to succeed, as a father, husband, and producer. Hailee Steinfeld is excellent as his teenage daughter, and Catherine Keener lends able support as his ex-wife. Other parts are neatly filled by James Corden, CeeLo Green, and Yasiin Bey (also known as Mos Def). 

Music producer Gregg Alexander deserves special mention for commissioning and recording songs that blend seamlessly into the storyline  and help define their characters.

Although it’s not a conventional musical, Begin Again made me feel good, just as those old movie musicals used to do. What more could one ask of a film?