'Begin Again': Toronto Review

'Can a Song Save Your Life?'

Director: John Carney 
Stars: Keira Knightley, Mark Ruffalo, Hailee Steinfeld
The Buzz: Carney, the writer-director of Once, creates a musical romance, from Exclusive Media, about a frustrated singer (Knightley) and a washed-up producer (Ruffalo).

Returning to the territory of "Once" with a name cast and less frugal production values, John Carney again explores the poignant ways in which music brings people together.

Keira Knightley and Mark Ruffalo find comfort making music in Irish writer-director John Carney's minor-key charmer, picked up at Toronto by the Weinstein Co.

[Editor's note: This review for Begin Again was first published when the film was titled Can a Song Save Your Life?.]

TORONTO – More a tagline than a title, Can a Song Save Your Life? sees Irish writer-director John Carney on a larger canvas, revisiting themes from his lo-fi 2006 indie hit Once – chief among them the emotional connectivity of music. Swapping Dublin for New York, and trading a single couple for a group of people all trying to mend broken bonds or forge new ones, the touching film again trades in uncynical heart-on-its-sleeve sentiment, and deploys a series of gentle ballads, a number of them performed by star Keira Knightley. The Weinstein Co. swooped in to grab U.S. rights following the warmly received Toronto premiere. 

With Once, Carney tapped into every shoestring-budget filmmaker’s dream. Shot in 17 days for $160,000, the micro-movie musical bounced from Sundance to become a Fox Searchlight sleeper hit, grossing $9.5 million domestically. It won an Oscar for “Falling Slowly,” one of the achingly beautiful songs by Glen Hansard (Carney’s former bandmate from The Frames) and Marketa Irglova. Subsequently adapted for the stage, Once landed on Broadway in 2012, winning eight Tony Awards including best musical.

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With Can a Song Save Your Life? Carney demonstrates that the disarming emotional candor and intimacy of the earlier film was no fluke. He is a wholesale believer in the healing power of music, as the too-literal title suggests. The director also has a profound respect for the way music is created, manifested here in a rejection of processed pop and its accompanying marketing concerns, and an embrace of back-to-basics purity.

Knightley plays Greta, a Brit hauled up onstage in a bar to do one of her songs at an open mic night by her busker friend from home, Steve (James Corden). The melancholy number doesn’t exactly wow the crowd, with the exception of enraptured drunk music industry A&R veteran Dan Mulligan (Mark Ruffalo). The film then rewinds twice to approach the same scene from different perspectives, revealing the day from hell that pushed Dan to drown his sorrows and the series of events that left Greta miserable in Manhattan.

Separated from his music journo wife Miriam (Catherine Keener), Dan struggles to maintain a rapport with their petulant teenage daughter Violet (Hailee Steinfeld). He’s out of touch with how the music biz works in the digital age, and hasn’t brought in a bankable new act in years, causing him to be kicked to the curb by Saul (Yasiin Bey, aka Mos Def), the money side of the indie record label he founded. The last vestige of this burnout’s past glory is his Jaguar. 

Greta came to New York a few months back with her songwriting partner and boyfriend of five years, Dave Kohl (Adam Levine). As his success spiraled after one of his songs was featured in a hit movie, Greta was cheated on and left behind.

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In a scene that appears influenced by the progressive layering of instruments over an acoustic foundation in the lush orchestrations of Once onstage, Dan hears and sees the potential for enhancement in Greta’s song. Carney appears to be playing with expectations by setting up a Star is Born scenario, but thankfully goes in another direction.

Despite her ambivalence to the proposal of cutting a demo with him or anyone, and her eagerness to flee back to England, Greta sticks around. When Saul passes on funding the project, Dan hatches a plan to make an ambient-sound album recorded all over the city.

Most of the songs are by New Radicals frontman Gregg Alexander, and while they don’t match the raw emotionality of Hansard and Irglova’s tunes for Once, their delicacy suits the tone of the movie. Cinematographer Yaron Orbach’s visuals convey a sense of intoxication with New York City that’s enhanced by sharing the high of making music – in alleyways, on rooftops, in parks and on subway platforms. 

Incorporating some degree of cast improvisation, Carney’s screenplay is not exactly robust, and the film feels slightly padded with mini montages. A scene in which Dan and Greta share playlists doesn’t add much, especially since their choices are somewhat pedestrian for two music buffs. But there’s a nice ambling quality to the story as Dan cleans up his act and gets closer to his family, Dave returns from the road eager to patch things up with Greta, and she and Dan circle each other with undeclared attraction. The film’s quiet pleasures creep up on you.

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Lovely chemistry between Knightley and Ruffalo enriches their many scenes together, while Ruffalo and Keener share different sparks that suggest the deep residual affections of an 18-year marriage. Mostly off the radar since her wonderful performance in True Grit, Steinfeld balances teen attitude with insecurity. And Corden registers some of the funniest moments with his quippy delivery.

In his first film role, Levine keeps the tattoo sleeve covered but shows the clueless ways in which Dave’s fledgling rock star ego is an obstacle to him being reconciled with Greta. He performs one of her songs in a slick, overproduced version that illustrates the problem. Levine’s fellow The Voice alumnus Cee Lo Green also makes an amusing appearance as a hip-hop star who acknowledges an enormous debt to Dan, greeting him with some cheesy freestyle rap. 

Venue: Toronto Film Festival (Special Presentation; Weinstein Co.)
Cast: Keira Knightley, Mark Ruffalo, Hailee Steinfeld, Adam Levine, James Corden, Yasiin Bey, Cee Lo Green, Catherine Keener
Production companies: Exclusive Media, Likely Story
Director-screenwriter: John Carney
Producers: Anthony Bregman, Tobin Armbrust
Executive producers: Judd Apatow, Tom Rice, Ben Nearn, Nigel Sinclair, Guy East, Sam Hoffman
Director of photography: Yaron Orbach
Production designer: Chad Keith
Music: Gregg Alexander
Costume designer: Arjun Bhasin
Editor: Andrew Marcus
Sales: Exclusive Media/CAA
No rating, 103 minutes