The forlorn British singer/songwriter in “Begin Again” is Gretta (Keira Knightly.) She has accompanied her boyfriend, American singer Dave (Adam Levine,) to New York where he has signed a recording deal with a major label. Dave, and consequently Gretta, are treated like superstars with a beautiful New York apartment and all the accoutrements of music stardom. It doesn’t take Dave long to hookup with one of his account execs leaving Gretta brokenhearted. The ultimate irony is that much of Dave’s music has been written by Gretta.
Gretta moves in with an old British friend named Steve (James Corden), a busker who performs his own guitar music on New York street corners. Steve lives in a crummy Manhattan walk-up which is conveniently jammed with cast-off recording equipment. Steve also performs in amateur-night song writer gigs in New York bars. Gretta accompanies Steve to one of these gigs and is cajoled by Steve to perform one of her numbers in front of an otherwise disinterested, semi-stoned and largely inattentive crowd.
One of the members of the otherwise disinterested gaggle is Dan (Mark Ruffalo.) Dan is a walking disaster area himself. He is down and out in virtually every way possible. While once a successful music producer himself, Dan has been fired from the music producing company he founded and is going through a messy break-up with Miriam (Katherine Keener) his wife of many years. On top of all this, his 14-year-old-daughter is showing alarming signs of becoming a “party girl in training.” This is where the good part of “Begin Again” starts.
Dan, while in an alcohol-induced stupor, hears in Gretta a potential performance superstar. While the rest of the audience clacks on in this smoke-filled den of rude behavior, Dan imagines what Gretta could sound like if accompanied by some of the unattended instruments left behind her on stage as she performs a her own vocal number accompanied only by her own guitar. While the cinematic style used in this scene is a bit hooky (unmanned instruments spontaneously accompanying the performer) the keenness of Dan’s production skills reveal themselves graphically.
Dan’s next job is to convince Gretta that he can transform her from a Cinderella to a princess. This transformation was the most interesting part of this otherwise trite rehash of an earlier story. As I am not much of a pop music fan, I never fully appreciated the depth and breadth of the role of a producer. Dan uses Gretta’s skills as the starting point for the creation of an art form that far transcends her abilities alone. He cobbles together a varied group of skilled, unpaid musicians to accompany Gretta. As he is unable to book studio time he uses Steve’s hand-me-down recording equipment to create an album literally on the streets of New York. Using “Guerrilla” production tactics Dan, Gretta and company record her music in subway stations, under the Washington Square Arch, on the lake in Central Park and in the shadow of the Empire State Building. Ambient street sounds and voices are incorporated in the recordings.
Dan functions as the maestro for the productions — his organizational skills, vision and music sense are the deus ex machina of the album. The recording sessions portrayed in “Begin Again” were fascinating and far more interesting than the storyline. This provided a absorbing insight into the role and importance of a producer, rather than a performer, of music.
While Keira Knightly is compellingly beautiful, her acting was a bit overdone and her toothy, but attractive, smile badly overused. Mark Ruffalo, on the other hand, was convincing as Dan. The music performed by Adam Levine as Dave was outstanding.