Dan (Mark Ruffalo) may have fallen from grace — and success — in the music business but he’s still got it. The ability to not only see the possibilities but to hear them.
Starring: Mark Ruffalo, Keira Knightley, Adam Levine.
Rating: R for language.
Standing in an East Village bar in New York listening to a Brit named Gretta (Keira Knightley) reluctantly play a new song, “for anyone who’s ever been alone in the city,” Dan imagines the possibilities. Like a contractor or designer who can walk into a ruin and see a remodeled showcase, Dan can mentally add piano, drums, violin and cello to the spare performance of Gretta on guitar.
"I want to make records with you. I want to produce you. I want to sign you,” he tells a skeptical Gretta in the dramedy “Begin Again” from John Carney, the writer-director of “Once.”
Her response: “You look like a homeless man.”
Dan and his business partner once were on the cover of Rolling Stone for their indie record label. Dan pawned his two Grammys for $225 and a night of partying, regularly drinks too much and is living apart from his wife (Catherine Keener) and teenage daughter (Hailee Steinfeld). He hasn’t signed anyone in years and the label co-founder (Yasiin Bey, also known as Mos Def) has lost patience and faith in him.
Gretta comes with a backstory of her own, as the girlfriend and songwriting partner of a musician, Dave (Adam Levine of Maroon 5), who was discovered on a movie soundtrack, signed to a major label, brought to New York from England and given the star treatment. Once Stateside, though, their relationship turns into fodder for a breakup song and Gretta is on the verge of returning home when Dan stumbles across her, by accident or fate.
The original name of the movie summed it up in a more vibrant, memorable way: “Can a Song Save Your Life?” This title is generic and bland.
Like “Once,” an unconventional Irish love story which produced an Oscar-winning song and inspired a Tony Award-winning musical, “Begin Again,” is a valentine to the power of music. It’s also a love letter to the grit and glory of New York.
It demonstrates how music can invest banal scenes with meaning or, through a stranger’s playlist, crack a window into his or her personality. Shared songs can literally and physically bond people, too, we see and hear.
“Begin Again” also addresses the changing nature of the business and its reps, asks whether the muscle of a label is necessary for success these days, if audiences want authenticity — whatever that is — and if music should be free. Or more affordable.
It tests Mr. Levine’s ability to act, although the Maroon 5 frontman is playing a variation of himself, and Ms. Knightley’s talent for singing. Relieved to step away from the death and doom of “Anna Karenina” and “Seeking a Friend for the End of the World,” she proves herself quite capable as a musician and will appear on the soundtrack being released by Mr. Levine’s 222 Records, in partnership with Interscope Records.
Another coach from NBC’s “The Voice,” Cee Lo Green, turns up as Troublegum, a hip-hop star who owes much of his wealth and fame to Dan, while British-born actor James Corden (a Tony winner for “One Man, Two Guvnors”) provides winning support as Steve, a busker who lends a funny and sympathetic ear to old friend Gretta.
This year is shaping up as a terrific one for Mr. Ruffalo. He provided the passion and pivot points for HBO’s “The Normal Heart,” will be seen in the possible Oscar contender “Foxcatcher” come November and supplies energy and zeal here.
Just as “Once” didn’t follow the usual romantic playbook, “Begin Again” springs some welcome surprises, managing to celebrate forgiveness, family, romance, independence, platonic partnerships and the ability of a song to say exactly what you were yearning for or thinking or feeling. Or just command you to dance, dance, dance.
Opens at Manor Theater, Squirrel Hill.
Movie editor Barbara Vancheri: email@example.com or 412-263-1632. Read her blog: www.post-gazette.com/madaboutmovies.