Wednesday, 24 September, 2014

Published July 04, 2014
Hitting the high notes
Irish filmmaker John Carney gets actress Keira Knightley to flaunt her vocal chops in this endearing rom-com, writes DYLAN TAN
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A star is born: Knightley (left) plays a talented singer-songwriter who's reluctant to share her vocal gift with the public until grizzled Mark Ruffalo, who plays a down-and-out record label head, eggs her on. - PHOTO: CATHAY-KERIS FILMS

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LIKE his previous big-screen musical Once, John Carney hits all the right notes in his new indie rom-com-with-a-differnce, Begin Again.

It's the Irish filmmaker's lo-fi love letter to New York - complete with a tasty soundtrack and a very charming and on-key Kiera Knightley impressing with both her acting and vocal chops.

She plays Gretta, a talented singer-songwriter who's reluctant to share her gift with anyone except with long-time rock-star boyfriend Dave (Maroon 5's playboy frontman, Adam Levine, making his acting debut). When the fame game gets to his head and he cheats on her, the pair break up.

Greta is spotted by Dan (a mumbly Mark Ruffalo in his scruffy best), a charismatic but down-and-out record label head after her best friend, Steve (James Corden), a struggling busker, urges her to get over the split by expressing herself through her music again.

Realising he's got gold in his hands after hearing her perform on an open mic stage, Dan persuades Greta to sign with him and together, they record a concept album of songs at various New York landmarks as their own musical tribute to the city.

The little experiment also turns into a soul-searching experience not just for Greta but also for everyone involved, including Dan who has his own broken marriage and strained relationship with his daughter to mend.

Like Once, Begin Again boasts an earworm of a soundtrack that gets the audience from the first pop hook that's laid down.

The jangly tunes - written by Gregg Alexander, who was the frontman of the now-defunct power-pop group, New Radicals; as well as Once's leading man and real-life folk singer Glen Hansard - are catchy and both Knightley and Levin deliver them with guts and conviction.

Which explains why Carney doesn't waste them as mere musical interludes or background music.

Just as he did in Once, the songs - mostly performed in full - become part of the story and add a little magic to the otherwise predictable feel-good plot. They jazz the story up the same way Ruffalo's Dan takes the plaintive acoustic ballads of Knightley's Greta and rearranges them into radio-friendly pop hits.

Carney's screenplay also feels current as it takes some digs at the desperate state of a fast-changing music industry struggling to find its feet after Internet piracy all but killed CD sales in the new millennium.

But the best thing about Begin Again is the way he's pulled off a very charming love story without trying to overdose his audience with over-sentimental emotions.

Carney might be working with a better-known cast this time with Levine's heartthrob status being one of the film's main marketing draws but he isn't totally banking on it - the ladykiller pop star is nowhere to be seen on the poster which features only Ruffalo and Knightley.

Just as the two leads eventually find a connection in the movie, Begin Again boasts enough soul in its music and charming love story to slowly melt the audience's hearts.

Rating: B+