"Begin Again" sees Irish writer-director John Carney on a larger canvas, revisiting themes from his lo-fi 2006 indie hit "Once" - chief among them the emotional connectivity of music. Swapping Dublin for New York, and trading a single couple for a group of people all trying to mend broken bonds or forge new ones, the touching film again trades in uncynical heart-on-its-sleeve sentiment, and deploys a series of gentle ballads, a number of them performed by star Keira Knightley.
With "Once," Carney tapped into every shoestring-budget filmmaker's dream. Shot in 17 days for $160,000, the micro-movie musical became a sleeper hit, grossing $9.5 million domestically, winning an Oscar for "Falling Slowly" and becoming a Broadway show.
With "Begin Again," Carney demonstrates that the disarming emotional candor and intimacy of the earlier film were no fluke. He is a wholesale believer in the healing power of music.
Knightley plays Greta, a Brit hauled up onstage in a bar to do one of her songs at an open mic night by her busker friend from home, Steve (James Corden). The melancholy number doesn't exactly wow the crowd, with the exception of enraptured drunk music industry A&R veteran Dan Mulligan (Mark Ruffalo). The film then rewinds twice to approach the same scene from different perspectives, revealing the day from hell that pushed Dan to drown his sorrows and the series of events that left Greta miserable in Manhattan.
Separated from his music journo wife Miriam (Catherine Keener), Dan struggles to maintain a rapport with their petulant teenage daughter, Violet (Hailee Steinfeld). He's out of touch with how the music biz works in the digital age, and hasn't brought in a bankable new act in years, causing him to be kicked to the curb by Saul (Yasiin Bey, aka Mos Def), the money side of the indie record label he founded.
Greta came to New York a few months back with her songwriting partner and boyfriend of five years, Dave Kohl (Adam Levine). As his success spiraled after one of his songs was featured in a hit movie, Greta was cheated on and left behind.
In a scene that appears influenced by the progressive layering of instruments over an acoustic foundation in the lush orchestrations of "Once" onstage, Dan hears and sees the potential for enhancement in Greta's song. Carney appears to be playing with expectations by setting up a "Star is Born" scenario, but thankfully goes in another direction.
Despite her ambivalence to the proposal of cutting a demo with him or anyone, and her eagerness to flee back to England, Greta sticks around. When Saul passes on funding the project, Dan hatches a plan to make an ambient-sound album recorded all over the city.
Most of the songs are by New Radicals frontman Gregg Alexander, and their delicacy suits the tone of the movie. Cinematographer Yaron Orbach's visuals convey a sense of intoxication with New York City that's enhanced by sharing the high of making music - in alleyways, on rooftops, in parks and on subway platforms.
Lovely chemistry between Knightley and Ruffalo enriches their many scenes together, while Ruffalo and Keener share different sparks that suggest the deep residual affections of an 18-year marriage.