Here is one of many scenes that make director John Carney’s “Begin Again” one of the best and most emotionally affecting movies of the year: A folk rock musician in the throes of a new record deal and equally new music fandom returns to New York after a West Coast tour. Waiting for him in their swanky new digs is the woman who has been his girlfriend, musical partner and, in effect, the other half of his heartbeat from the time they were teens.
He has written a romantic song on the road. He desperately wants to sing it to her.
The smile of delight on her face is the kind of smile that happens to lovers informed of a new source of mutual joy in a long-standing relationship.
His loving expression doesn’t change as he sings the song and plays his guitar in their kitchen. And then, in a microsecond that we in the audience swear we can see on screen, she realizes that he didn’t write the song for her at all. In the next microsecond, you can see that he knows she’s caught on that he wrote the song for someone else.
We can feel the devastation. As it’s performed and played out on screen, it’s beyond good. It’s close to cinematic perfection. Nor is it alone in the first two-thirds of the film.
Another transcendent moment is this one: we’ve seen that same songwriter/life partner, a few minutes earlier (in a time sequence we don’t perfectly understand yet) during an open mic night where an old busker friend of hers has hauled her up on stage against her will and insisted she sing one of her songs.
She is mopey and nothing if not reluctant. To please a wonderful old friend whose support she can no longer do without, she sidles up to the stage to sing a song anyway. It’s that friend’s love, and not ambition or a desire to please an audience, that impels her.
What she doesn’t know is that sitting at the bar is a former record mogul who has drunk himself out of the business.
At the record label he founded, his old partner has kicked him out for bringing nothing to the table and for drowning his life in booze and self-pity.
He, too, is a romantic casualty in pop music life: His music journalist wife of 18 years fell in love on tour with the rock star she was covering.
Chaos, rejection and heartbreak all around ensued including a teenage daughter of their marriage caught in the parental crossfire and acting out her misery and insecurity. (She dresses, these days, as her father puts it, like Jodie Foster in “Taxi Driver” – not a particularly good look for a well-raised middle-class teen.)
And as the despairing record executive listens drunkenly to the mopey and terminally reluctant singer in a club that has no interest in either one of them, he hears, in his mind’s ear, a record that is screaming to be made of her song and her singing – the fill where the drummer kicks the arrangement into gear, the string backing, the piano, all visualized instrumentally but without actual players on screen. The record producer’s face lights up in a phantom ecstasy and his hands pound out drumbeats no one else can hear. It’s a beautifully realized film moment.
This is the new film by Carney, the writer/director who was once the bassist for the Irish band the Frames and who has become the movies’ poet laureate of stories about music. This is a man who knows the way people listen to music in the 21st century – who knows how they bond over it in ways that they never did before. (It’s amazing, as this film shows you deliriously, how much soul-sharing can be done with just an iPod and some ear buds.)
Catherine Keener plays the producer’s estranged wife. Hailee Steinfeld plays their teen daughter. Adam Levine plays the rock star in the first real flush of discovering that his love of himself and his music and his audience will always exceed his love for a flesh and blood human at close range. All are first-rate; novice Levine, therefore, of Maroon 5 and TV’s “The Voice,” is startling.
It’s almost impossible to overstate how very good “Begin Again” is in its first two-thirds. If you saw Carney’s film “Once” – that much-loved film that, unsurprisingly, became a stage musical – you’ll have much the same reaction to this one.
It’s as warmly involving and likable as films get this year. You’ll know – truly KNOW – everyone in it as it proceeds.
But you’ll also know deep down in your passionate, movie-loving bones that the movie’s final act won’t work. All of its truly phenomenal grace can’t be sustained at the finale. Too many balls are in the air. Balls will drop, assuredly.
The best ending could have been the one closest to “Inside Llewyn Davis” but Carney, to understate considerably, isn’t the same kind of filmmaker as the Coen Brothers. His film has its own sanguine emotional truths at the end, but it’s a pretty bumpy ride in its last few turns around the park (some of it happens behind the final credits – a denouement by afterthought).
I understand what Carney wanted his story to do but until he imposes an ending, his story – with a magical, almost radiant narrative flow – was almost telling itself, despite a time sequence that, when you break it down, is far more complicated than it seems.
Even so, I wouldn’t recommend that anyone who knows what it is to love either movies or music to miss it. And if you love them both? One of the year’s must-sees.
Starring: Mark Ruffalo, Keira Knightley, Adam Levine, Catherine Keener
Director: John Carney
Running time: 104 minutes
Rating: R for language
The Lowdown: A floundering music mogul and a beautiful songwriter find rebirth together.