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Knightley tunefully leaves comfort zone ‘Begin Again’ feel-good film

NEW YORK, June 28, (RTRS): British actress Keira Knightley, known for playing tragic heroines in period dramas, strayed into new territory with her first major singing role in “Begin Again,” a feel-good film about the music industry and starting over. “Begin Again,” which opened in limited release on Friday and nationwide next month, was written and directed by Ireland’s John Carney, whose 2006 indie musical “Once” nabbed the best original song Oscar for “Falling Slowly.” “Once” was also adapted into a Broadway show and won eight Tony awards, including best musical. Like its predecessor, “Begin Again” is laced with music and much of it is sung by Knightley, along with Maroon 5 frontman Adam Levine, who makes his film debut. “The whole thing was out of my comfort zone. I am not a singer. I didn’t know how to do that,” Knightley, a best actress nominee in 2006 for her role in “Pride & Prejudice,” said in an interview. “A lot of the film was improvised, and I had never done that before. I’d say that those two were major things to be grappling with,” added the 29-year-old actress, who took voice lessons to prepare for the film.

Reluctant
Knightley plays Gretta, a British songwriter and reluctant singer, who arrives in New York with her longtime boyfriend Dave, played by Levine, just as he is about to hit the big time. Fame clouds his judgment and he strays, leaving a bereft Gretta on the verge of returning home when she is discovered by a chain-smoking, down-and-out record producer named Dan, played by Oscar nominee Mark Ruffalo.
“Essentially, what it is about is people falling down in life and trying to pick themselves back up, whether that is romantically or whatever,” said Knightley. Dan persuades Gretta to record her songs live on the streets of New York for a CD to revive his nonexistent career. Along the way, the two strike up an unusual friendship. Ruffalo describes his own character’s transformation. “I like the meditation on the character’s journey back to his creative self from this material world, and coupled with a mid-life crisis and a marriage that is going through a transition,” Ruffalo said about the role.

Lot
“There is just a lot of fertile ground,” he added about the film that premiered at the Toronto Film Festival last year. Catherine Keener (“Capote”) plays Dan’s estranged wife, Oscar nominee Hailee Steinfeld (“True Grit”) his rebellious daughter, and 2012 best actor Tony winner James Corden (“One Man, Two Guvnors”) is Gretta’s struggling musician friend Steve. Grammy-winning rapper CeeLo Green and Yasiin Bey, formerly known as hip hop artist Mos Def, play Dan’s music colleagues. Ruffalo, whose career started in the theater, wouldn’t mind if like “Once,” Carney’s new film is adapted for the stage. “I think this could be an easy move,” he said. “So much of the work is already done.” 2006’s “Once” was such a delicate creation, a spider web made of spun sugar that it still feels impossible that it ever existed at all. A movie that could have easily tipped over into the twee or the mawkish was instead a quiet, perfect little romance expressed through music.

There’s no way that tuneful lightning was going to strike twice, but you can’t blame writer-director John Carney for giving it another shot in “Begin Again,” a film that premiered at festivals last fall under the title “Can a Song Save Your Life?” And even if this new movie doesn’t achieve the exquisite subtlety of its predecessor, “Begin Again” offers its own melodic delights. It’s a film you have to meet at least half-way, with a vision of New York that’s so magical and disingenuous that I decided to treat this like something I might catch one night on Turner Classic Movies. Audiences in the 1930s were well aware that the Great Depression was raging all around them, but they were perfectly willing to believe that a hat-check girl could sing at a nightclub one night, get discovered by a big producer and have all her dreams come true.

“Begin Again” requires a similar leap of faith, but once I made it, I reveled in the charm, the romance and most of all the bevy of terrific songs, composed by Gregg Alexander, the pop maestro behind the short-lived 1990s project New Radicals. (If you still turn up the volume on your earbuds when “You Get What You Give” comes on, go ahead and buy this movie’s soundtrack right now.) Singer-songwriter Gretta (Keira Knightley) and music producer Dan (Mark Ruffalo) meet at the worst possible moment: she’s about to leave New York and return to England after being dumped by boyfriend Dave (Adam Levine), a singer who has allowed fame to go to his head in the worst way, while Dan is tying one on after being fired from his own record label by co-owner and lifelong pal Saul (Yasiin Bey, a.k.a. Mos Def).

Gretta’s pal Steve (James Corden) convinces her to sing a song at his open-mic night, and while the crowd is mostly oblivious, a drunken Dan hears the possibilities of her plaintive ballad. (We see drums, bass, keyboards, and violins come to life behind her to create the single that Dan is recording in his mind.) Dan convinces Gretta to stay in town to make an album, and after Saul proves unenthusiastic, Dan and Gretta decide to record it themselves, guerrilla-style, in the streets and rooftops of New York City. We’re firmly in “let’s put on a show” country here, but while the plotting can be admittedly hokey, the characters never are. We come to know what’s behind Gretta’s commitment to sincerity and Dan’s fractured relationships with his wife Miriam (Catherine Keener) and daughter Violet (Hailee Steinfeld); even Dave gets treated as a human being and not a grotesque caricature in Carney’s humane screenplay.

Alexander’s compositions are spot-on: they’re catchy enough to hook us in on the first listen and make us see what Dan sees in Gretta’s writing, and they’re flexible enough to exist both as solo guitar pieces or stadium-rock mega-anthems. And yes, that’s Knightley doing her own singing; she’s not going to give Adele any sleepless nights, but she has a sweet voice, with the acting chops to really put over what these songs are about. (My personal favorite is “Like a Fool,” a kiss-off song that Gretta leaves on Dave’s voice mail.) “Begin Again” is as uncynical and unironic a film as I’ve seen in a while, which will no doubt be a turn-off to many. But like a catchy summer jam, it doesn’t need to apologize for being exactly what it is, nor do its fans have to feel guilty for getting it stuck in their heads.

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