In his book Culture Making, Andy Crouch (executive editor of this magazine) writes that "to be Christian is to stake our lives on this belief: the only cultural goods that ultimately matter are the ones that love creates."
I don't know what John Carney's personal religious beliefs are, but I'm pretty sure that the director agrees—and he makes movies that testify to this belief. Carney, onetime bassist for the Irish rock band The Frames, has directed music videos, TV, and films, but he's best known on this side of the pond for Once, the 2006 breakout hit that introduced us to the Swell Season and garnered an Independent Spirit Award, an Oscar, and an Emmy.
Once was a fairy tale set in a real world, the story of a washed-up Dublin street musician (Glen Hansard, who formed The Frames) who meets a Czech immigrant (Marketa Irglova). They wind up making a demo together and saving each other's lives, in small ways.
Besides being a great movie, Once is also a love story that's not a romance—a special interest for me—and that's where Begin Again comes in. When it played at the Toronto International Film Festival earlier this year, it was titled Can a Song Save Your Life, and in his festival coverage for us Ken Morefield expressed his keen enjoyment of the film.
Now that I've seen it, I have to agree. Begin Again is not Once; it's an American film about New York City made by a Dubliner, and it trades in its fairy-tale feeling for more of a romantic comedy vibe. Its folk-rock is replaced with singer/songwriter-pop. But it's still the kind of movie musical in which the music is the point of the story—which by my lights is absolutely the best kind—and not only is it fun and enjoyable and uplifting, it's also about how the best things we make come from the love we have for one another.
Greta (Keira Knightley, who apparently can sing too) and Dave (Maroon 5 frontman Adam Levine) are twentysomethings, college sweethearts who love to write songs together. They move to New York City when some of Dave's work hits it big and he lands a record deal. You can guess what happens next: Dave's success goes to his head, and Greta finds herself alone, crashing on her friend's couch and making plans to head home to England, broken. But her friend makes her tag along to his gig at Arlene's Grocery (a bar and music venue on the Lower East Side, favorite of musical up-and-comers) and fairly drags her onstage to perform one of her own songs, where fortyish A&R music label owner Dan (Mark Ruffalo) spots her.
Dan was big on the music scene in the 90s, but he has been having a particularly bad year. And he's had a particularly bad day, after a particularly bad hangover and a particularly bad firing from his own label in front of his teenage daughter. He's also separated from his wife. And broke. It's not a good time for Dan.
But Greta's music sparks his excitement, and Dan chases her down and talks her into recording a demo—all over New York City, he says. The city itself will be their backdrop. They'll get musicians who don't have a lot else going on to play, and they'll just see what happens. Greta agrees, reluctantly at first. But she doesn't have much going on. What's to lose?