“Begin Again,” Reviewed: Only the Music Matters.

BEGIN AGAINNot nearly enough people are talking about Begin Again (rated R), a sweet, soulful movie from writer-director John Carney that combines the melancholy wistfulness of the filmmaker’s previous Once (2006) with the in-the-zone creative exuberance of this summer’s Chef. It’s always impossible to know how long a low-budget independent film will remain in local theaters, and while I expect Begin Again will have a long and healthy life on DVD and cable, there’s no reason not to start your love affair with this movie today.

Begin Again premiered at last year’s Toronto Film Festival under the title Can a Song Save Your Life?, an awkward but fitting name for an elegant work. The film opens on Gretta (Keira Knightley), a lonely British expat living in New York City, reluctantly singing a song she’s written in a quiet lower-Manhattan nightclub; the only receptive ears in the audience belong to Dan (Mark Ruffalo), who’s smiling a little too broadly. He’s drunk and she’s despondent, but they’re instantly drawn together in an unlikely love affair – not with each other, but with that song, and what it represents.

After flipping back and forth in time to explain who they are and how they got here, we learn that Dan is a down-and-out music executive who’s just been excommunicated from the recording company he helped build. His tastes are no longer commercial enough for his now-former partner (rapper/actor Mos Def), and Dan’s frustrated idealism has alienated him from his wife and daughter (Catherine Keener, Hailee Steinfeld) as well. Gretta, meanwhile, has problems of her own: She came to America as one-half of a singer-songwriter team led by her boyfriend (Maroon 5 frontman Adam Levine), only to find herself out on the street when he’s seduced by the trappings of fame.

After hearing Gretta perform, Dan is inspired – and Carney gives us a glimpse into his mind by showing abandoned musical instruments playing themselves in accompaniment to her solo-guitar performance. He wants to get her signed immediately, but settles instead on a different idea: Pulling together a crazy-quilt collection of performers and recording an album on the streets of New York, complete with ambient noise and the breathless enthusiasm of music as life.

Gretta doesn’t trust Dan at first, but his amiable intensity wins her over and soon the two are bonding over their mutual love of music – hers, and everyone’s. Sharing a set of headphones as they wander through the streets of New York, they become so giddy over an old Stevie Wonder song that they impulsively sneak into a packed nightclub to dance with abandon with a crowd. The rest of the room is moving to one song, but they’re still wearing their headphones – and they couldn’t be happier.

Just as Jon Favreau did in Chef, Carney finds a way to jack us into the souls of these artists; it’s a thrill to be swept up into their passion for their work, and to look over their shoulder as they create something from nothing. In Carney’s Once, circumstances thwart romance between the music-loving couple, suffusing that film with hard-earned melancholy; but here we know the only important Dan-and-Gretta union is in their songs. Aided by two great performances – Ruffalo’s rumpled New Yorker and Knightley’s wounded-but-principled artist – Begin Again reminds us that, if a song can’t save your life, it can definitely make it better.

(IMAGE: Keira Knightley in Begin Again. Photo courtesy of the Weinstein Company.)