Begin Again (12A) - 'romantic charmer that hits right notes'
Romantic drama. Starring: Keira Knightley, Mark Ruffalo, Adam Levine, James Corden, Cather Keener, Hailee Steinfeld, Mos Def, CeeLo Green. Directed by John Carney. Cert 12A
Following the massive and frankly inexplicable worldwide success of Once, writer-director John Carney appeared to have his pick of projects.
Rather bizzarely, instead of jumping at the opportunity to work with a budget that dwarfed that of his debut feature, he opted for the low-key, shambolic Zonad, a sci-fi spoof whose very existence has mercifully been glossed over in most of the publicity material for Begin Again.
Comparisons between Begin Again and Once are inevitable, given that both movies feature an odd-couple relationship and play out against a backdrop where the power and love of music is key to the story.
Where such similarities end though is in the fact that Begin Again features proper actors, working with a great script and including several excellent songs, penned by former New Radicals frontman Gregg Alexander.
Oh, and New York beats Dublin as a location every time.
Originally titled Can a Song Save Your Life?, the film smartly introduces us to Greta (Keira Knightley), a college friend of Steve (James Corden), an English busker who's hosting an open-mike singer-songwriter night who basically bullies his pal to get up and perform a song she's recently written about a break-up.
In the audience is A&R man Dan (Mark Ruffalo), someone whose glory days are way behind him but who still trusts his ears and his heart.
In a magical sequence we watch as Dan listens to Greta's sparse song of love and regret and pictures an entire arrangement in his head, ghostly cellos and percussion coming to life on the screen.
Through a very clever series of flashbacks we see how Greta and Dan arrive at their fateful meeting, see through being the ex-girlfriend of ascending star singer Dave (Maroon 5's Adam Levine), while Dan has just been sacked from the record company he founded and is trying to develop a bond with his teenage daughter (Hailee Steinfeld) while keeping relations civil with his ex-wife (Catherine Keener).
Despite the weight of Dan's past credentials, the pair decide to record an album on the hoof in various locations throughout New York, using the sounds and atmosphere of that great city almost as a studio in itself.
Nothing radically new there you might think and, of course, you'd be right. This is, in essence, a modern variant on the old, "Hey, why don't we put the show on right here?" theme, but it works wonderfully.
It helps that there's genuine chemistry between all the main characters with Knightley and Ruffalo outstanding and fully convincing as people bruised in their own way but never without redemption.
Knightley can carry a tune too, as she proved with a surprise cameo as the ballroom singer in the Dylan Thomas biopic The Edge of Love, and Alexander's songs here are mightily impressive.
Further down the order, James Corden is excellent as light comic relief, as is CeeLo Green as one of Dan's hugely successful hip-hop discoveries, while Catherine Keener and Hailee Steinfeld provide solid and essential support.
The way Carney's script feels real and unphoney gives Begin Again great heart and warmth, with the central relationship between the two leads never drifting off into the improbable or iffy. This is a film totally in love with life, love, music and New York - and it's an absolute gem.