Fans of the Oscar-winning 2006 Irish film Once (and its more recent stage-musical adaptation) may find this American drama a little derivative, but it's a strong story in its own right. This time writer-director John Carney has assembled a starry cast to nicely capture the rhythms of New York's streets. And the songs, while not quite as integral to the story, are gorgeous.
The opening sequence sets up the story from two perspectives, as music producer Dan (Mark Ruffalo) hears songwriter Greta (Keira Knightley) reluctantly perform at a bar's open-mic night. Both of these people are at their rope's end: always seeking offbeat talent, Dan is on the outs with his record label partner (Yasiin Bey, aka Mos Def), and wants to reconnect with his estranged wife and teen daughter (Catherine Keener and Hailee Steinfeld). Meanwhile, Greta has just been dumped by her rising pop-star boyfriend Dave (Adam Levine), who got his big break from a song she wrote. To stop her moping, her pal Steve (James Corden) encourages her to start singing her own songs. In Greta, Dan sees the kind of artist he longs to make records with, so with nothing to lose the two set out to record her songs at locations around the city for a new album.
Like Once, this is a love story that doesn't actually involve romance: these two people need each other to discover their life's passions. So Ruffalo and Knightley get the chance to create some terrific chemistry without much of a threat that they'll fall for each other. Indeed, each has other fish to fry, as they try to sort out their emotional connections elsewhere. Their flirty friendship plays out in a fresh, effortless way that generates some complex emotions and ideas. Ruffalo is always great at creating these kinds of loose, slightly hapless characters, while Knightley delivers an even more earthy performance, letting her own sparky personality emerge on-screen for the first time along with some serious skill as a singer. And the supporting cast add texture in just the right places.
This is a story about the power of music as an expressive tool that brings people together and helps make sense of a messy world. There's also a gently pointed critique of the recording industry's preference for supermodel stars with formulaic music and a pre-existing internet fanbase. Thankfully Carney never pushes any of these themes, letting the film evolve in an improvisational style that seriously gets under the skin. So even if the plot feels a little flimsy (especially the father-daughter bonding element), the characters and their music come beautifully to life with raw emotion and spiky humour.
Run time: 104 mins
In Theaters: Friday 11th July 2014
Distributed by: The Weinstein Company
Production compaines: Exclusive Media Group, Sycamore Pictures, Apatow Productions, Likely Story
Contactmusic.com: 4 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 83%
Fresh: 118 Rotten: 25
IMDB: 7.5 / 10
Director: John Carney
Screenwriter: John Carney
Starring: Mark Ruffalo as Dan, Keira Knightley as Gretta, Adam Levine as Dave, Hailee Steinfeld as Violet, Catherine Keener as Miriam, James Corden as Steve, Mos Def as Saul, Cee Lo Green as Trouble Gum, Aya Cash as Jenny, Maddie Corman as Phillis
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