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Begin Again (15)
Odeon, Panton Street
7th July 2014

★★★☆☆

Films which centre around music always trouble me. I thought Walking on Sunshine was a total car crash and whilst Jersey Boys was competent enough, to be honest, it bored me in several places. However, Begin Again isn't a musical and it doesn't cast a famous frontman and refuse to let him do his thing. (Okay, maybe I'm still not over that appalling casting of Leona Lewis in a practically non-singing part - Gary Davy, Buffy Hall, Richard Mento and Vicky Wildman, see me after class. It's detention for you.)

With that in mind, Begin Again is far more enjoyable than I could have hoped for. Recent releases have made me wary, but even though it's still all about the music, this time the songs feel like they've been written for the film, rather than simply forced in. When rising star Dave (Adam Levine) signs a record contract and moves to New York with his girlfriend Greta (Keira Knightley), the differences between what they want out of their art soon come to a head. Greta is a singer-songwriter herself, and her idea of being a musician involves staying true to her artistic vision, critics and general public be damned. Dave however just wants to be famous and sell, sell, sell. It's not long before their seemingly perfect relationship is dead in the water.

Levine of Maroon 5 fame - yes, that's where you know him from - is making his big screen début here, but falls back on previous experience of playing a jerk. If you remember, in the music video for She Will Be Loved, his character cheats on his girlfriend with her emotionally vulnerable and physically battered mother. Levine may be known for his singing, but he's shot plenty of videos before, so isn't exactly coming from a point of no experience. It's a safe role, not too difficult, and he pulls it off. It's a decent performance, but you'd expect that.

The surprising revelation is that Knightley - who conversely is known for her acting and not her singing - can indeed sing. Who knew? Knightley is sweet, fragile, funny and holds a tune. She's no Christina Aguilera, but less talented vocalists than Knightley have had hit records. It's not the widest range I've ever heard, but she's easy on the ear. As A&R man Dan, Mark Ruffalo plays opposite Knightley, with the two of them showing a believable chemistry. Will they? Won't they? Do they even want to? There are so many delicious questions left hanging in the air for so long that you almost feel a resolution of any kind would spoil the movie.

Begin Again is billed as a comedy drama rather than a rom-com, but enter James Corden as Greta's friend Steve anyway. Corden provides able support in bringing light-relief to some of the more intense moments. I must admit, I was never a fan but a couple of guest appearances in seasons five and six of new Who have endeared him to me somewhat. He's once again an everyman in this role, a bit inept, but with kindly intentions. Is Corden being typecast? Maybe, but he does gently funny well.

At first the fractured timeline makes me wince in fear - the only good thing about the VHS of Groundhog Day is that the technology is now obsolete so you can't watch a film about again and again over again and again - but actually, if you abandon all prejudices, it serves a point here. Writer-director John Carney doesn't overuse the technique, once he sets up the story, we're back into simple linear time - thank goodness for that.

Greta and Dave's music is perfectly pleasant and warm and several songs are repeated in a blatant attempt to turn them into earworms so you'll buy the OST. However, once you walk out of the cinema, despite the best efforts of the creative team, you forget what the songs sound like. As a backdrop to what is, let's face it, a chick flick, the music is great. However, it's just not substantial enough to make it into real life. The tracks last in the moment then fade away.

I adore the idea of a love song to a city - recording music live on the streets and rooftops of New York rather than in a studio. However, what we hear isn't punctuated by the sounds of a concrete jungle; it's polished, clearly shot in a studio anyway. Maybe the execution would have a been a lot less awesome than the concept, but as a die hard urbanite, I wanted to hear Knightley and co performing against the sound of sirens, fights and alley cats. Mind you, I frequently find police tape near where I choose to live, so maybe my love of city life is a bit extreme.

Begin Again is just strangely uplifting. At one point, I almost wanted to get back with my ex, purely so we could break up again and I could leave him a musical voicemail that time round. I'd have to learn how to play more than three chords on the guitar, but it would be worth it. Right? Who wouldn't want to follow Greta's lead? Not only can she sing, compose and play guitar, but she apparently has an innate ability to sort out stroppy teens. Modern day hero.

A lot is predictable fare, but the actors are good together and whilst I saw the in-credits scene coming, the actual ending wasn't as easily anticipated. This film could have more of an emotional pull to it, but there's nonetheless a lot of charm and it's the sort of fuzzy feelgood flick that like Chef should do well this summer.

Begin Again was released in the UK on 11th July 2014.

Nearest tube station: Piccadilly (Bakerloo, Piccadilly)



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