It's open-mic night, and jaded music impresario Dan Mulligan (Mark Ruffalo) has had enough. All he wants is another bourbon, but over the loudspeaker comes an amazing sound: The voice of Gretta James (Keira Knightley) shyly singing an original tune. So real! So raw! In an instant, Dan's faith in music has been restored.
Is he hearing what we're hearing? This is a problem in "Begin Again," the latest music-themed fantasy from writer-director John Carney. Much like "Once," Carney's Oscar-winning, Broadway-bound hit from 2006, "Begin Again" is an ode to the indie-rock spirit, but its music -- written by Carney and others -- is as safe, smooth and Starbucks-friendly as Norah Jones. "Begin Again" feels well-intentioned, but the disconnect is irksome. It's like a movie about a visionary jazz artist who sounds like Kenny G.
"Begin Again" takes pains to prove that Dan and Gretta are real, not phonies. Dan walked away from the label he founded, Distressed Records (Saul, his partner, is played by rapper-actor Mos Def, credited as Yasiin Bey). Gretta left her rock-star boyfriend, Dave Kohl (Adam Levine, of Maroon 5, nicely blending sincerity with self-satire). Together, Dan and Gretta decide to reject the labels and make their own album on the streets of New York -- no slick production, just pure music. "A tribute," says Dan, "to this beautiful . . . fractured mess of a city."
The movie's aesthetics, however, are as questionable as the record industry's. Dan and Gretta present themselves as guerrilla musicians, but their outdoor sessions are far from rugged. Up on a rooftop, they bring professional recording equipment, lay down an Oriental rug and even set up an endtable with a working lamp, creating a cushy environment that looks like Steely Dan's living room. The result: latte-flavored folk-pop disguised as gritty street rock.
"Begin Again" has a fine supporting cast, including Catherine Keener and Hailee Steinfeld as Dan's ex-wife and teenage daughter, and Cee Lo Green as an avuncular rapper. As it turns out, the movie's most convincing scenes involve no music at all.
PLOT A budding singer-songwriter and a hard-luck record executive decide to make music on their own terms.
CAST Keira Knightley, Mark Ruffalo, Adam Levine
BOTTOM LINE From the writer-director of "Once" comes another outpouring of indie-rock emotion that puts fantasy ahead of realism.