Begin Again (2014) ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆

Once in a while — a great while — a movie comes along that startles me with its execution, that kicks me in the head like a mule and makes me remember just why I love movies in the first place.  Begin Again, which was originally titled Can a Song Save Your Life? is such a movie.  It sounded good (I’ve still not seen a preview for it) but I had no idea what I was about to see.  And hear, since it is all about music.

Writer-director John Carney knows a great deal about music, having been a bassist and vocalist for the Irish band The Frames, and later writing and directing the unusual musical Once for the big screen (and even later, Broadway).  His basic premise is not particularly original — failing record producer unexpectedly hears talented singer and persuades her to let him produce a record for her — yet the accomplishment of that archetypal show business story is astonishing.  The film overflows with creativity, imagination and even genius at various points, accompanied by amazing character development — often prodded by music — that makes this movie a must-see for anyone who loves music or movies.

The casting is surprising.  Mark Ruffalo looks bloated and beaten down as the record producer whose instincts catch fire when he finally hears something good.  Ruffalo fully inhabits the role; it never seems like he is acting.  And the singer who catches his ear is Keira Knightley, the British period piece doyenne who proves she can be as contemporary as anyone else when she wants to be.  Knightley sings her own songs, very nicely, yet they don’t seem particularly special until the producer expands upon them with accompanying musicians and sound design.  That’s the point, from his perspective: that music can be improved, and sold, given the proper nurturing.

John Carney is determined to show that music is organic — that it can attain a life of its own, in almost any circumstance, given such nurturing.  One of the film’s great attributes is how, and where, Knightley’s album is recorded.  In this regard it flies in the face of traditional show biz wisdom, arguing that modern music, written and performed by people simply for the love of creating it, is not only its own reward, but can be commercially and financially rewarding as well.  This extends to the finale, shown during the closing credits.

But I fell in love with the story the second time Knightley plays her song on stage, hearing it as Ruffalo does.  That scene is as inventive and inspired and perfect as any I have ever seen in a movie.  Thankfully, there are more great scenes to follow, as an unlikely friendship and partnership develops between two people who need each other more than they know.  What a great movie.  ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆.  29 July 2014.

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