"Begin Again" reminds us why we love music -- how it touches our souls, how lyrics connect to our lives, and how it deepens relationships and gives meaning to existence.
Writer-director John Carney, whose previous work was a little unassuming Irish indie "Once" that evolved into a smash hit, Oscar-winning song and Tony-winning play, focuses on music makers again, only this collaboration is set inside the music business.
While it is reminiscent of the first film in tone, Carney's follow-up is not "Once 2." Fortunately, the comedy-drama conveys a genuine spirit, and moments of grace that soar on their own merits.
The sublime and versatile Mark Ruffalo ("The Kids Are All Right") is Dan, formerly a hot shot record producer but now hitting bottom. By chance, he hears shy, sincere songwriter Gretta (Keira Knightley) reluctantly singing an original tune in an East Village bar, and both their lives are changed.
He transforms her into a real artist. and the journey is so very sweet but not without its challenges.
Her rising star boyfriend Dave Kohl (Adam Levine) has dumped her in the most cliched way -- success led to straying. Her subsequent songs are raw and real, and she must overcome being a bruised peach.
While she blossoms, Dan deals with a rebellious teen daughter Violet (Hailee Steinfeld), an exasperated ex-wife (Catherine Keener) and a frustrated ex-record label partner (Mos Def).
The music makers demonstrate why creating music makes them feel alive and the allure of this universal language.
Always an effective character actor, Ruffalo is getting more notice from his Incredible Hulk duty in "The Avengers," but he's been consistently magnetic since "You Can Count on Me" in 2000. As scruffy Dan, he's terrific portraying the passionate genius who needed a new focus in life.
Matching him note for note is Keira Knightley ("Pride and Prejudice"), who surprisingly showcases a sweet singing voice -- and performed all her songs. She imbues her Gretta with an appealing feisty attitude, getting what she wants by being assertive.
Another surprise is Adam Levine ("The Voice"), the superstar frontman for Maroon 5, in his feature film debut. He's a natural as pop-rock singer Dave, and believable as the jerk ex-beau.
Levine's fellow "The Voice" judge Cee Lo Green has a nice cameo as Dan's loyal client.
The plot is cleverly constructed, and not entirely predictable, either.
The characters have distinct personalities, and the banter is authentic.
The vibrant use of New York City was another wise choice, especially for a summer-in-the-city soundtrack that is thoroughly captivating.
While the entire film is an interesting adventure, there are a few moments that are truly inspired -- namely, Dan envisioning producing Gretta's record and making instrument choices in his head, and a walking sojourn around Manhattan while listening to the greatest music of the rock era.
The modest film's heart is exposed at all times, and it is a magical mystery tour, touching us with its simplicity, humor, warmth and frayed-around-the-edges quality.
The songs are a winning combination, with "Lost Stars," emerging as a Best Song contender. Gregg Alexander, who fronted the band The New Radicals ("You Get What You Give") in the late 1990s, wrote the film's music. Glen Hansard of "Once" also helped, and Levine co-wrote "Lost Stars."
Few movies capture the joy of music like "Begin Again," and while the romance subplots are necessary, they don't get in the way either.
What Doesn't Work
I loved everything about this movie.
4 stars out of 4
Director: John Carney
Starring: Mark Ruffalo, Keira Knightley, Adam Levine, Hailee Steinfeld, Mos Def, Catherine Keener
Rated: R for language