If Inside Llewyn Davis is the poisonous view of the hardest and most demoralising sides of the music industry, with all its rejection, squalor and misery, then Begin Again is the antidote. They are from different sides of the tracks and share nothing but a basic premise and the same city (New York) in common.
Begin Again tells the intertwining stories of two people whose lives have been ruined by the music industry. Dan Mulligan (Mark Ruffalo) has been sacked from his own record company by co-founder Saul (Mos Def) and has taken to the bottle to avoid finding focus in his life, much to the detriment of his relationship with daughter Violet (Hailee Steinfeld). He has a chance meeting in a bar with Gretta James (Keira Knightley), who has plenty of talent but no stage presence or confidence. He decides she has enough potential to turn into something more than just a singer at an open mic night, though her reluctance is powered by the recent breakdown of her relationship with Dave Kohl (Adam Levine), now seemingly destined for stardom.
Begin Again falls down where films like Inside Llewyn Davis or Carney’s last film Once succeeded for the simple reason that the songs and performances simply aren’t as good. Keira Knightley has found herself in an awkward situation. Her fame ultimately puts her as an a-lister actress and celebrity, with the ability to elevate an average film to blockbuster status due to her past successes. As a viewer, subconsciously there is an expectation that her ability as a musical performer should match that. Sadly, the studio has had this well in mind and ensured, through post-production, that her voice and entire backing track is polished to perfection, removing the intimacy seen in Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová’s raw but powerful performances in Once. It’s an inevitable source of frustration as it is evident she has some talent, though what that is feels hard to decipher.
Ruffalo’s performance lacks conviction and the feeling that he has been really scorned by the music industry never fully materialises. Adam Levine plays his part coolly, almost as an exaggeration of his real-life personality (or what it is perceived to be). Steinfeld provides another assured performance in her supporting role, even though she doesn’t look like she’s ever picked up a guitar before. James Corden makes the most of his limited screen time.
It’s disappointing that overall this film fails to deliver on so many levels. The one thing it will be remembered for is the track “Lost Stars”, which was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Song in 2015. It is the one song here that stands up to those around which Once was built. However, one song does not a musical make; it is very unlikely this will follow its predecessor onto the West End and thus it is destined to be forgotten.
Begin Again is available for purchase now, or can be streamed on Netflix.