TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. Director John Carney had a surprise hit with his low-budget musical "Once." And he returns to the musical arena - this time in New York and not Dublin - with his new movie "Begin Again." Keira Knightley plays a heartbroken singer-songwriter who teams up with a down and out drunken producer played by Mark Ruffalo. Film critic David Edelstein has this review.
DAVID EDELSTEIN, BYLINE: The Irish director John Carney has a touching faith in the idea that people who are culturally and temperamentally unlike can achieve oneness by making music together. That's not exactly a radical idea in the world of musicals. But in his 2006 hit "Once," he proved he had a knack for giving sentimental showbiz fairytales the texture and tang of real-life and for knowing when to darken the mood with harsh notes. In "Begin Again," he makes the case once more that a song can save your life. The original title was even "Can A Song Save Your Life?" -which sounds like a name for the worst quiz show ever. The challenge, says Keira Knightley as the heroine, Greta, is that the song must be authentic. It has to come from the soul and sound like it. She's a British singer-songwriter who's jilted by her suddenly famous boyfriend and sometime collaborator Dave, played by Adam Levine of the group Maroon 5. On the eve of fleeing New York City, Greta gets coerced into playing a song during an open-mic event at a bar where Mark Ruffalo, as a once towering recording executive named Dan, is getting blotto. A pair of lengthy flashbacks reveal Dan's very bad day and Greta's very bad year. And then we're back at the bar where Dan watches Greta strum her guitar, and in wondrous scene, a cinematic coup imagines her with backing - drumsticks rise and play on their own power, an electric guitar and bass join in. It's like a drunkard's "The Sorcerer's Apprentice." Then Dan tells Greta he wants to sign her. Greta brushes him off and Dan pursues her to the street.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BEGIN AGAIN")
MARK RUFFALO: (As Dan) OK, here's the truth, I couldn't sign you if wanted to, all right.
KEIRA KNIGHTLEY: (As Greta) OK.
RUFFALO: (As Dan) I didn't come for a signing tonight. I haven't signed anybody in seven years. My label has completely lost all faith in me.
KNIGHTLEY: (As Greta) So why did you give me your card?
RUFFALO: (As Dan) Force of habit. If I look homeless it's because I practically am. I left my home about a year or so ago. And I wasn't celebrating tonight. I was standing on a subway platform ready to kill myself and then I heard your song. Want to get a beer?
KNIGHTLEY: (As Greta) Sure.
EDELSTEIN: "Begin Again" is so charming you forgive all the contrivances. Ruffalo makes an adorably rumpled, drunken jerk. And Knightley speaks with an irresistible mixture of tartness and romantic longing, she also has a surprisingly sweet singing voice.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BEGIN AGAIN")
KNIGHTLEY: (As Greta) (Singing) Tell us the reason youth is wasted on the young. It's hunting season and this lamb is on the run. Searching for meaning, but are we all lost stars trying to light up the dark?
EDELSTEIN: Greta and Dan don't just need a hit, they need to prove to the world they still exist. So they built a surrogate family of musicians and hit the streets. The idea is to do an album in which each song is recorded in a different Manhattan locale live with no overdubs, thereby catching the city's authentic spirit. The conceit would be more credible if the numbers didn't sound so processed. But at least the people on screen are actually playing. The film features several known musicians - Adam Levine is good at convincing you he's a callow, shallow crooner. Cee Lo Green has an amusing scene as a superstar who shows off magnificent estate and does an impromptu rap. And Yasiin Bey, formerly known as Mos Def, is all sleek self-containment as Dan's chilly ex-partner. The rest of the cast is believable too, especially Hailee Steinfeld as Dan's teenage daughter who hasn't forgiven him for not being around. It's odd though that Carney is under the weirdly old-fashioned impression that teen girls who dress in ultra-short shorts and skimpy tops are crying for their daddies intervention - what decade is this? - they all dress that way. Actually, despite the smart talk and occasional dissonances, "Begin Again" isn't much of a leap from Judy and Mickey saying let's put on a show. Carney's specialty is inching toward cliches and backing away from them and inching forward again. He's not as pure as he pretends to be, but his footwork is very entertaining.
GROSS: David Edelstein is film critic for New York Magazine. I'm Terry Gross. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.