2007Director: John Carney
Cast: Glen Hansard, Markéta Irglová
n a pair of touching scenes from John Carney’s Once, the audience hears two versions of the same song played virtually back-to-back. In the first performance, Glen Hansard (of the Irish rock group the Frames) and a ragtag crew of street musicians run through a heartrending ditty called “Your Mind’s Made Up” for a local producer. At the song’s climax, Hansard’s face contorts into a mass of cathartic woe, remembering an old flame that made up her mind to leave him. After finishing the recording, the producer suggests that they administer the “car test,” a time-honored studio ritual of re-listening to the song on shitty speakers to see how great it really is. This time, the song is backed by shouts of joy, hugs and kisses and an impromptu Frisbee match at sunrise, all manifestations of the performers’ shared elation of having created something special. The effect of the song’s lyrics and twisting melodies have an even greater effect now as the audience senses that the hero has finally made up his own mind about some things, at least for a few fleeting moments of ecstasy and understanding. Once may be billed as a musical, but the skill and emotion exhibited here are unlike anything I’ve ever seen within the polarizing genre.
Now unless your name is Kenny Ortega, setting an original full-fledged musical in the recognizable present is a bold move. To then employ a cinema verité style influenced more by the Dardennes than Donen, while maintaining the conviction and heart of the best classic movie musicals is downright revolutionary. But the greatest legacy of Once is its implicit examination of how music and imagery can coalesce, rendering sound and celluloid into life-affirming expression, whether in the form of a musical, a concert documentary or a romantic drama. In some of the most brilliantly juxtaposed scenes in recent memory, the songs enrich the film’s winsome narrative while the tangled relationships of each character justify the emotional weight of Hansard’s lovelorn ballads. You needn’t be a fan of the Frames (I wasn’t) or musicals (I usually respect them more than I actually enjoy them) to be taken in by this film’s heedless charm.
The major characters here are merely The Guy (Hansard) and The Girl (Markéta Irglová), plus a few aptly named friends and relations (The Ex-Girlfriend, The Husband, The Man Watching TV, etc). After a chance encounter, The Guy falls for The Girl, The Girl falls for The Guy’s songs, and they both make beautiful music together. Unfortunately for The Guy, this music is in the literal sense only, as both characters are emotionally crippled by heartbreak. While the plot isn’t terribly complex, it recalls the elegant simplicity of one of Hansard’s three-minute pop songs. This setup also allows for many unrushed and enjoyable discussions between Hansard and Irglová; their walk and talk routine at times resembles Linklater’s Celine and Jesse.
As I said before, I wasn’t particularly fond of the Frames before watching Once, but then again I never really got into Jesus & Mary Chain before seeing the last scene of Lost in Translation either. And more importantly, I’ve never listened to the Frames while roaming the gray streets of Dublin heartbroken and dejected. Context is everything here, and Carney effectively uses the Irish scenery to underscore Hansard’s simple yet emotive tunes. As Hansard and Irglová cycle down a cold gray street, familiar and mundane, the shaky camera seems to accidentally veer right to reveal a breathtaking yet effortless ocean landscape. Like the hooks to Hansard’s songs, that indelible image is still stuck in my head days after viewing the film, and it’s indicative of the Frames’ facile but impressive skill as performers.
By populating the cast with musicians playing musicians and shooting long takes on-location, the filmmakers have also made a superb performance movie. And despite the film’s realism, it’s never awkward or intrusive when the characters break into song because that is what musicians do. They sing for each other. It’s no more awkward than when the Band breaks into song mid-interview in The Last Waltz. Nor is the film merely a fluff piece for Glen Hansard. Sure, just about everybody in the film fawns over his songwriting, but for a kid off the street who fixes vacuums for a living, how is one not impressed?
Despite the film’s near-universal acclaim and relative box-office success, there will still be intelligent filmgoers who put this one off because it’s a musical. But Carney, Hansard, and Irglová break so many conventions of musical drama that genre quickly becomes a moot point. Once is a small yet powerfully endearing treasure of a film that should not be lost among this summer’s swarm of sequels, threequels, and anthropomorphic vehicular robot movies.
Once is now playing in limited release.
By: David Holmes
Published on: 2007-07-13