Late in John Carney’s musical sightseeing tour Begin Again, Keira Knightley’s songwriter rebukes her rock-star ex for wrenching her delicate composition into an overblown earworm. There’s a parallel to be found with Carney’s repurposing of the “lovelorn city-dwellers bond while recording an album” premise from his weightlessly beguiling 2006 debut Once into a star-powered redemption yarn that lives for its next montage.
Mark Ruffalo strains for Nicholson-esque impudence as a flask-swilling music producer with nothing left but his principles who hears Knightley in a bar and persuades her to record her songs, guerrilla-style, on the rooftops and subway platforms of New York City. The notion that the city’s ambient sounds lend her demo authenticity is hard to swallow, but worse still, what we hear is studio-pristine—the film wants to have its cred and mix it too.
Part of the problem is the change of location; what seemed enchanting in Dublin feels twee in New York. Another part is that the Once blueprint is adhered to with staggering fidelity, except where it matters most—the central relationship, here a non-starter because Carney replaces his characters’ inner lives with interludes. The best sequence finds Ruffalo roused from despair by imagining what Knightley’s acoustic solo would sound like fully orchestrated, with each instrument joining her onstage, playing itself. For a few moments the healing power of song washes over us. Then the music stops.