We’re spending the month of December looking back at some of the great new releases that we missed out on reviewing earlier this year. This is The Rest of 2014.
In this day and age, it’s probably a lot easier to fall in love with things or ideas than it is to fall in love with people. The last generation or two has become so inundated with things like romantic comedy tropes that it’s almost harder to compartmentalize feelings for another person without going “hey, just like in that movie!” or something. You can criticize the places pop culture is headed as concepts, not people, become the dominant thing to love. At the same time, though, there’s a sort of purity that’s pretty admirable, too.
Begin Again, a neat little comedy-drama that saw an unfairly small release over the summer, is a movie about being in love with a thing, in this case, music. (The film’s original, superior title was Can a Song Save Your Life?) Gretta (Kiera Knightley) is in love with music, as is Dan (Mark Ruffalo), the co-founder of a successful record label. They meet at a particularly low ebb in each of their lives: she’s reeling from a breakup with her longtime, newly-famous songwriting/life partner (Adam Levine), while he’s reeling from a crumbling family life, disillusionment with the business, and a mean drinking streak.
Nonetheless, they inspire each other to collaborate on a peppy, lo-fi album recorded all over New York City. In a lesser film, this recording would be juxtaposed by some sort of romantic conflict; one of the biggest triumphs of Begin Again is its unwillingness to fall into that trap. Writer/director John Carney already had his way with star-crossed musicians/lovers with Once in 2007, and Knightley and Ruffalo’s chemistry is warmly, refreshingly platonic.
Indeed, the romantic lead of Begin Again is the music, easily the film’s most brilliant move. The maddeningly catchy soundtrack was largely written and overseen by Gregg Alexander, who liner note geeks will know as the brainchild behind New Radicals (they of the 1998 feel-good hit “You Get What You Give”) and the Grammy-winning co-writer of Santana and Michelle Branch’s “The Game of Love”). With a penchant for easily memorable melodic hooks and eyebrow-raising turns of phrase, Alexander is an inspired choice here, and even if “Everything is Awesome” somehow misses picking up an Oscar for Best Song, the Academy would do well to recognize the work done here.
Even the truest love can suffer from flaws, and the singular devotion to song in Begin Again obscures the fact that there’s not much else to say otherwise that hasn’t been said elsewhere. The jokes are too spare, the performances good but almost workmanlike in their quality. Levine is a stunning exception; I hope he took the role fully aware of how it mirrored his own tenure as the frontman of Maroon 5, who went from solid soul-pop hitmakers to trashy Top 40 outfit with disturbing agility. (Levine’s climactic solo version of the film’s standout song “Lost Stars” is the best thing on the new M5 album, and it’s only a deluxe bonus track.) He plays Dave Kohl as a guilty dude, fully aware of the credibility he gave up for a chance at the brass ring, a too-simply played but still effective arc.
Maybe this wasn’t meant to really knock crowd on their asses the way Once was, but if you’re looking to watch some pleasant leads in relatively pretty locations around New York City sing some truly excellent songs, Begin Again may be your concert ticket for the night.