If you’re a fan of writer/director John Carney, it’s hard not to go into Begin Again with sky-high expectations. The filmmaker’s most well-known feature, the Academy Award–winning Irish movie musical Once, was one of the most surprising hits of the last several years: a cast that featured no movie stars, a musical that got along just fine without entire-cast dance numbers, and a film that broke a dozen conventional narrative rules, did not end happily, and still managed to be one of the most satisfying cinematic romances of the 2000s.
Begin Again immediately differentiates itself from its elder sibling with its undeniable star power. Keira Knightley plays Greta, a talented British singer/songwriter obsessed with authenticity, who moves to America with her rising star of a singer/songwriter American boyfriend Dave (Adam Levine). As with most relationships between civilians and rock stars, theirs doesn’t work out, and in the wake of their breakup, Greta immediately makes plans to return to the U.K. Her return trip is derailed by Dan (Mark Ruffalo), a once great, now disgraced record producer who chances upon Greta’s open-mike performance on her last night in town, falls for her music, and convinces her to stay in New York for the summer and let him produce her album. When Dan has trouble drumming up funding, the two get scrappy: hiring student musicians and making the streets of New York their recording studio.
Begin Again’s cast is certainly more Hollywood than the unknowns of Once, but it’s a Hollywood cast that works. Ruffalo does his best work in years, Knightley does her best work possibly ever, and Levine proves that he’s not just a rock star but a veritable movie star, as well. Begin Again presents itself as a more-polished version of its gritty predecessor, but just because it boasts more gloss doesn’t mean it lacks true grit; this is a film uninterested in conventional plotting or tidy endings. Rather, its goal seems to be to show the transformative power of music in the lives of its characters, people whose lives desperately need transforming. It might not reach the highest heights of Once, but it still remains one of the most soul-stirring major releases of this year.