There is a moment early on in John Carney's Begin Again that is, not to be cheesy, magical. Gretta, played by Keira Knightley, reluctantly takes the stage to perform a song she wrote herself. She strums her guitar, almost terrified, and her gaze seems to be focused on the ends of the song--after all, she doesn't want to be up on stage to begin with. A drunken record producer named Dan, played with persuasive scruffiness by Mark Ruffalo, imagines how Gretta's song would sound with a different arrangement. The instruments surrounding Greta on the bare stage come to life, and her song transforms as she performs it.
Dan wants to sign Gretta to his record label, but he's not really in the position to do that. Earlier that day, Dan's partner asked him to leave the company they founded together. The entire encounter stings even more because Dan's daughter, played by Hailee Steinfeld, watches the entire thing. When he sees Gretta perform, he thinks he might be able to salvage a shred of his career, but she is determined to jump on a plane and head back to England.
Begin then goes back to explain why Gretta is so set on leaving New York. She arrived with her boyfriend, Dave Kohl (Adam Levine), an up-and-coming musician. Dave and Gretta are put up in a gorgeous apartment, and he always brings her along while he records more music. In front of the executives, Dave offers to let them hear some of Gretta's music, but she seems reluctant--she either doesn't want the executives to think she is being a pushy tag along, or she just wants to man to have his moment in the spotlight. Knightley and Levine have a relaxed chemistry that seems very genuine. Dave eventually becomes a douchebag with a flannel cape, and the scene where Gretta discovers he's been sniffing around is heartbreaking in its simplicity.
Gretta changes her mind about recording, and Dan takes her to meet his partner Saul. He doesn't think there is anything special with Gretta, but Dan is determined to record an album with her. Since they don't have the money to make a big, lavish studio album, Dan proposes that they record in various parts of the city. They group together some local musicians. Here is where Begin Again really soars. The musical sequences are great--it feels like the music is part of the air around them. It all weaves together nicely.
My favorite thing about Begin Again might be Knightley's Gretta. If this were a bigger film (or if anyone but Carney directed), Gretta would record her album as a big fuck you to Dave. She would tearfully send him a copy and then dismiss him when he came crawling back to her. Begin Again is more mature than that. True, Gretta and Dave meet again twice after they go their separate ways, but they aren't bitter-fueled rages. When you love someone and it ends, you still care about the other person--no matter what events took place.
Knightley's chemistry with all the men in the movie is different yet relaxed. In the flashback scenes with Dave, Gretta is supportive and excited for him. I didn't know how her professional relationship with Dan would pan out, but I am happy of the Carney's choices (I don't want to spoil it). James Corden (soon-to-be The Baker in Into the Woods) is a sweet musician friend that Gretta crashes with after her breakup. Knightley is more at ease in this than ever before, and who knew she could sing?
A lot of people are comparing Begin to Carney's other musical romance, Once. While they are in the same vein of each other, Begin might be the more mainstream of the two. Once might be more of the artistic expression of writing, but Begin Again also deals with taking that music to the mainstream audience.