We’ve all seen people like him, a man standing with an open guitar case in front of him as he plays his heart out while uninterested pedestrians walk by on their way to more important things. There’s no way the few coins donated by generous the occasional passersby can support anyone; one wonders what drives these street musicians to their spots day in and day out. Once, the new film from the unknown Irish director John Carney has answered that question, I may never see one of these street corner bards the same way again.
The film’s unnamed male protagonist (Glen Hansard) sings and plays guitar on the streets of Dublin whenever he isn’t working at his father’s vacuum repair shop. While performing one of his own songs one night he meets an unnamed Czech immigrant (Markéta Irglová). The Girl is also a struggling musician who must go to a music shop in order to play a piano. Most of the guy’s songs were inspired by a girlfriend who had run off to London, leaving him heartbroken. The girl, who’s younger than the guy, has a baby and lives with her mother, she has a husband back in the Czech republic with whom she has separated and may never return to. The guy and girl form a platonic bond that never quite turns into a romance. The two eventually start collaborating musically, with good results. The guy finally decides to move to London in search of a record deal and possibly to reunite with his estranged girlfriend. Before he goes however he invites the girl to work with him on some studio demos over the weekend before his departure.
Once has been described as a musical, but I strongly hesitate to use that genre as a descriptor. This is not a movie where people burst into song spontaneously for no reason other than to shoehorn in a “number”. This is also not a big budget spectacle, it was made for $150,000 on the streets of Dublin and is shot naturalistically without trying to revel in its low-budget the way a pretentious director like Lars Von Trier would. The songs in the film are usually played in their entirety, but are started for realistic reasons by characters who are musicians. The film is far more intimate and down to earth than a large budget musical like Chicago.
The music in the movie is acoustic pop in the vein of Tracy Chapman, the kind of thing that would be played by a “singer-songwriter” (a phrase I’m not a fan of). This is not the kind of music I normally enjoy. I prefer heavier music, in fact as I write this I’m listening to a Nine Inch Nails CD. With that said I thoroughly enjoyed the music in Once. The music is well written and aesthetically enjoyable on its own, but I don’t think I’d like it as much outside the context of the film. The film is what really made me love this music, knowing what’s going on in the performer’s lives while seeing the passion in their performances made the music really gel perfectly. Some songs and performances do work better than others, “Falling Slowly” and “When Your Minds Made Up” both stand out significantly more than anything else in the movie, but I wouldn’t call any of the songs bad, in fact I wouldn’t be surprised if we are hearing some of the music from this movie on Oscar night.
Both of the leads are played by professional musicians rather than professional actors. Glen Hansard was the lead singer for the Irish rock band The Frames in which director John Carney once played bass. Markéta Irglová is a solo musician who had worked with Hansard earlier. The lack of acting experience doesn’t really seem to be a problem here. Both are convincing in their parts. Neither are really forced to play overly challenging scenes, they certainly aren’t being very showy, but they do their jobs. Hansard does generally seem to be working harder than Irglová, but any problems are more than made up for by what the two bring to their musical performances. In my review of Black Snake Moan I felt that Samuel L. Jackson couldn’t really sing that well, but the way he acted made it seem like he could. The actors here really can sing and it shows, both movies have good music, but these performers didn’t have to try as hard.
The story here is simple but elegant. There’s nothing groundbreaking about this script, but the execution is so good it doesn’t matter. The viewer truly begins to know the guy and girl by the end of the film and empathize with their feelings. The film does all this without any of the emotional manipulation and falseness of a Hollywood romance. The film is slightly reminiscent of Richard Linklater’s excellent Before Sunrise. The viewer watches as these two people are together for a while before the real world pulls them apart. The film also has a nice sub-plot between the guy and his blue collar father (Bill Hodnett) who initially seems fairly indifferent about his son’s musical endeavors. The film accomplishes everything it sets out to do and delivers a great emotional pay off at the end while keeping to its realistic, down to earth roots. Once does all of this in a brief eighty-five minutes and leaves the viewer wanting more.
Once made its debut at Sundance where it won the World Cinema Audience Award for a dramatic film. The film has become a critical darling since then and has earned nearly unanimously positive reviews while being a box office hit at art house theaters. In many ways the film is this year’s Half Nelson: an indie that comes like a breath of fresh air in a market littered with over the top Hollywood action movies. I was worried that the critical response this movie had gotten was simply the result of such a poor summer environment but it wasn’t. This is a truly engaging movie that deserves the praise its been getting. The film is a great intimate story set in the real world that made me appreciate music I’m usually not into. This movie is far more than just the cure for the summer movie blues.
**** out of four