When Begin Again had its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival in September, it was called Can a Song Save Your Life? That's not a good title, either, but at least it wasn't instantly forgettable. It said something about the movie, a kind of indie-scene throwback to vintage melodramas about the struggles of showbiz life. The ups, the downs, the mopey midnight walks, the music.
But Keira Knightley - as Gretta James, an English songwriter who has just had her heart broken by her rock-star beau - is quick to point out, "I'm not Judy Garland." And Begin Again is not A Star Is Born.
It's more like A Star Is Born meets Inside Llewyn Davis meets Once.
Indeed, Begin Again is the work of John Carney, who wrote and directed Once, the little Irish movie that could. His new film, set in a New York City where there's always a parking space to pull into, similarly offers a quasi-authentic look at the machinations of the music industry: from street-corner buskers to the recording studio, from thriving boutique labels to a talent scout down on his luck - way, way down.
That would be Dan Mulligan (an overanimated Mark Ruffalo), a divorced dad with a drinking problem who wakes up late for a big meeting at the record company he cofounded, only to find out, when he finally shows, that he's been fired.
Drowning his sorrows at a downtown bar, he sees Gretta take the stage, pick up a guitar, and go into a dark, twangy number about contemplating a leap off the subway platform. Sure, Gretta's ditty matches Dan's desperate mood, but he hears something in her song. "I'm thinking Norah Jones, singer/songwriter thing!" he tells her later, loonily, over beers. Beers she has to pay for because he's broke.
So begins the professional courtship of Gretta and Dan. She's reluctant, ready to go home to London. He sees redemption in her songs, calling in old favors to record a demo that will make Gretta famous, and make him the industry whizbang he once was.
Begin Again is hopelessly corny, with Dan recruiting his old rapper buddy (CeeLo Green) and crew to help out with the album, which, in a daring move, they've decided to record "live," guerrilla-style, on rooftops and down alleyways, with all the ambient sounds and attendant sidewalk nutballs. Dan even lets his 14-year-old daughter, Violet (Hailee Steinfeld), who lives with his ex (Catherine Keener), tag along. And yes, Violet plays the guitar, too!
The best thing about Begin Again is Knightley, who brings those daunting cheekbones to bear on a screenplay that allows her to cite the artistic integrity of Randy Newman, to insist it's the music that matters, not the color of your hair, and to tell Adam Levine to bugger off. The Maroon 5 front man plays Dave Kohl, Gretta's boyfriend. Back in London they had made beautiful music together, literally. But once he's in New York, newly signed to a big label, temptation gets the better of him. He goes on the road, grows a beard, and beds an exec from his record company. Gretta's left in New York, crushed, sleeping on a friend's couch.
Enter Dan, reeking of booze.
So, can a song save your life? And can an impossibly mushy, mawkish movie make you feel good?
The answer to the second question, anyway, is yes.
Begin Again **1/2 (Out of four stars)
Directed by John Carney. With Keira Knightley, Mark Ruffalo, Adam Levine, Hailee Steinfeld.
Distributed by the Weinstein Co.
Running time: 1 hour, 44 mins.
Parent's guide: R (profanity, adult themes).
Playing at: select area theaters.