Keira Knightley’s singing voice, a little too girlish, a bit too breathy yet somehow still lovely, is “Begin Again” at its essence.
This film, in which a fledgling singer-songwriter (Knightley) and a foundering record executive (Mark Ruffalo) pair up to make an album, can be picked apart easily. But it shouldn’t be. It is too warm and engaging, too filled with catchy tunes and the wonderful Ruffalo, for that.
Writer-director John Carney, who made the captivating 2006 film “Once,” again pairs a man and woman through music while giving their collaboration romantic overtones.
Though Carney repeats storytelling notes, these notes can withstand it. This becomes clear in a “Begin” scene that varies only slightly from the most musically stirring scene in “Once,” in which a song was transformed, bit by bit, as instrumentation was added.
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The new scene has Gretta (Knightley), a British singer-songwriter living in New York and just split from her successful, cheating musician boyfriend (Adam Levine, from Maroon 5 and “The Voice” ), take the stage at a bar. Though most of the patrons ignore her acoustic performance, one boozy guy (Ruffalo) appears transfixed.
Dan, an indie-label co-owner no longer wanted at the label and now drinking his nights away, still has the presence of mind to envision, from Gretta’s solo performance, a fuller arrangement. Carney shoots the scene as if from inside Dan’s head, the unmanned piano and drums behind Gretta playing themselves. The song grows brighter, and the scene, though not original, becomes magical.
Dan asks Gretta to collaborate, but she’s skeptical of label guys because she writes songs for the love of it, she says. But he’s a good talker and wins her over.
Gretta’s purist attitude is curious because her confessional songs seem radio-ready. So does every other “Begin” song, most co-written and produced by Gregg Alexander of 1990s pop band New Radicals ( “You Get What You Give”) and sung by Knightley or Levine.
It’s hard to dislike well-crafted pop songs, especially these, which are not overproduced like so much of today’s pop. The radio-friendly aspect of “Begin” also evokes “Once.” That film did not spawn a Broadway musical because its songs were avant-garde. They just seemed grittier because the camera shook so much.
Though he shows more polish here, Carney still loves a handheld camera. He tends to come around the sides of his subjects at a 180-degree angle, as if catching them at life. This approach complements Dan’s and Gretta’s decision to make Gretta’s record outdoors, with Dan producing. They record in alleyways and on rooftops using a dynamic microphone.
The film’s burnished color palette make even New York City alleys inviting. Same with the supposed dumps inhabited by Dan, estranged from his wife (Catherine Keener) and living solo, and Gretta’s busker pal (James Corden).
Dan’s pragmatic business partner (a wry Yasiin Bey – the former Mos Def) thinks Dan, who has not had a hit artist in years, is through creatively, and basically kicks him out of the business. Dan and Gretta do the album on spec.
Dan supposedly is stuck in the ’90s and aughts, when he nurtured indie rockers and rappers to success. But he doesn’t hear a lot to recommend current pop. The demos he receives feature Auto-tuned singing and lifeless lyrics about the joys of summer.
Ruffalo’s performance suggests Dan is not finished but has been lying dormant – helped by copious amounts of alcohol – until things came around again to his styles of music. He holds no illusion Gretta will set the music world on fire. But he sees her as marketable without being too compromised.
Ruffalo invests Dan with soul, and with a heart that fills or empties according to his level of inspiration. Dan is so dispirited before meeting Gretta that his spark of enthusiasm when he does is infectious. Though Dan’s awakening would make more sense were Gretta’s talent more exceptional, Ruffalo sells it anyway.
Ruffalo and Knightley share a friendly chemistry, but the romantic tension the script implies does not exist on screen. That’s partly because Dan wants to reconcile with his wife, a chops-busting rock journalist played with assurance by veteran chops-buster Keener. Ruffalo and Keener seem the better match, in age and emotional heft.
Knightley is game and likable, but she often brings more weight to Gretta’s musical performances than to straight acting moments. At those moments, she can seem self-conscious, flashing a big grin instead of showing actual emotion.
Hailee Steinfeld (“True Grit”) lends depth to a small role as Dan’s teenage daughter. You feel this girl’s yearning for her dad, a loving father in general but neglectful during his recent personal crisis.
Big-screen newcomer Levine is a natural as Dave, newly minted pop star and Gretta’s ex. The movie’s songs, folkier than Maroon 5’s funky pop, suit his tenor beautifully. In flashback scenes of Dave’s and Gretta’s happier days, Levine’s eyes shine with love. Dave is effusive in his praise for Gretta’s songwriting and his affection for her. He just later became effusive for someone else, is all. Levine makes a great movie cad, in that a great movie cad is one not obvious from the start.
Dave also is the only one of the three main characters with a visible source of income. Dan is so broke he makes Gretta buy his beers when they first meet. Yet once they’re making the album, he’s suddenly throwing cash around.
But this sounds like picking things apart. And we’re not doing that.