Seven years ago, John Carney directed a little film that touched a lot of hearts. Once cost just $160,000 to make, but the tender indie romance about a Dublin busker and a piano-playing Czech immigrant was an art-house hit, won an Oscar for Best Original Song, and inspired a Tony-winning musical. In Begin Again, which debuted at last fall’s Toronto Film Festival under the title Can a Song Save Your Life?, Carney goes deeper and darker into the music world he knew intimately as a bassist for the Frames — fronted by Once star Glen Hansard.
Mark Ruffalo plays Dan, a washed-up label exec who retreats into the bottle as his career and family life crumble. He’s out of step with the modern music industry, he’s separated from his wife (Catherine Keener), and their teenage daughter (Hailee Steinfeld) is embarrassed by him. Things are so dire that he’s about to end it all — until he hears the sweetest sad song performed at an NYC dive bar. The British singer, Gretta (Keira Knightley), is also at rock bottom: Her boyfriend and collaborator, Dave (Adam Levine), got famous overnight and dumped her to go solo. Inspired, Dan takes a reluctant Gretta under his wing to record an album that channels the spirit of New York.
Carney knows lots of people from his days as a rocker, but he based Dan in part on his older brother Jim, a gifted musician who struggled with health issues and died in 2013 shortly after production wrapped on Begin Again. “John was cracked wide open,” says Ruffalo, whose own brother was murdered in 2008. “I understood where he was coming from and what that part of Dan meant to him.”
“My brother was my musical mentor when I was a kid and inspired this film — in some ways more than I knew until he started to get ill,” says Carney. “Unfortunately, he never got to see the end result, so it’s a very poignant story.” Despite its dark genesis and desperate characters, Begin Again gives Dan a second chance that Jim Carney never got. “It’s a fairy tale set in New York,” says Knightley, who was drawn to the film after one too many recent depressing roles. “I’d been doing very tragic pieces, so after Anna Karenina I was looking for something that felt like a breath of fresh air,” she says.
The cast and crew spent a sweltering July in New York to capture the city’s pulse in a way most moviegoers have never seen — or heard — before. When Dan and Gretta can’t book a recording studio, they decide to record her album at iconic outdoor locales, with the sound of busy streets as backup. The crew took a similar guerrilla approach in several scenes. Carney and the actors rode around in a van, then jumped out and grabbed a few moments on camera before bystanders noticed. “It felt very important that you see [Dan and Gretta] in context with the city and other people around them,” says Knightley. “We all wanted to make sure that New York becomes like a character.”
The movie is a love letter to the city, but also a rebuke to the current homogenized state of the music industry. Maroon 5’s Levine played along, making his film debut as the superficial rocker who breaks Gretta’s heart. “I got to have my cake and eat it with Adam,” says Carney. “I got to make that joke, having the guy in The Voice, and play with the idea of fame and stardom. But he’s actually not a pop star at all. He’s a funny, self-deprecating chap.” (Levine’s former fellow Voice judge CeeLo Green also has a small role in the film.)
Like Once, Begin Again is a feel-good story about struggling musicians — and contains several candidates for a Best Original Song Oscar. So might it follow the path of Once to Broadway? “I don’t think lightning strikes twice in life, and I would never tempt fate,” says Carney. “But in theory, yes, it could work [on the stage].” Either way, it’s already proved itself worthy of New York.