Director : John Carney
Screenplay : John Carney
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 2007 (U.S.) / 2006 (Europe)
Stars : Glen Hansard (Guy), Markéta Irglová (Girl), Bill Hodnett (Guy's Dad), Danuse Ktrestova (Girl's Mother), Mal Whyte (Bill), Gerard Hendrick (Lead Guitarist), Alaistair Foley (Bassist), Hugh Walsh (Timmy Drummer)
It wasn't until the final credits were rolling that I realized I never knew the names of the lead characters in John Carney's Once, which he describes as an “art house musical.” The guy and girl played by real-life Irish singer-songwriters Glen Hasard and Markéta Irglová are never explicitly named in the film, which reflects both the specifics of their own bittersweet would-be romance and the universal nature of the story Carney is spinning through their music. Once is a film of small moments; nothing big ever really happens, even when the guy realizes his dream of recording a demo CD to take to music labels in London. Yet, there is a sneaky grandeur to this otherwise modest little tale in the way it drives into the heart of one of the most daunting of romantic questions: What happens if you meet the right person at the wrong time?
The story takes place in Dublin, where the guy, who works in his father's (Bill Hodnett) vacuum repair shop, nurses a long-gestating musical career dream by writing his own songs and singing them on the street for donations. It is here that he meets the girl, a Czech immigrant who sells flowers on the same streets on which the guy plays his music. She is intrigued by his songs, especially their emotional undercurrents, which she discovers is a product of an ex-girlfriend who broke his heart. She is also an aspiring musician, and the film's sweetest moment is when they sit down at a piano and gingerly perform a duet of one of his songs, their resonance growing as the song progresses until it appears they have performed together all their lives. In that one musical moment, which lasts perhaps five or six minutes, Carney beautifully reimagines the entirety of the romantic dance we go through with our soul mates, finding the places where our differing voices coalesce into one.
And this is where Once is both a musical and not a musical. The characters never break out into fantastical song and dance ala the classical Hollywood musical, yet the majority of the film's running time is composed of musical performances. Because the lead characters are musicians, there is a narratively organic need for them to perform, and although the songs they sing don't relate directly to what is happening on-screen, they tend to reflect the characters' emotions and, at times, comment on the action. It's not quite a radical reworking of the musical genre because it reflects so directly another visual form--the music video. In fact, Once is not unlike a series of music videos strung together by brief bits of dialogue. The music is uniformly good, if not instantly memorable, but that is part of its charm. It derives largely from the same style of indie rock played by The Frames, the Irish pop band founded by Hansard and in which writer/director John Carnery played bass, although five of the film's 13 songs were originally released on Hansard's 2006 solo album Swell Season, on which he collaborated with Irglová.
Although Hansard and Irglová are natural and at ease with their characters and are just as affecting when they're talking as when they're singing, Carney slyly has them express their deepest emotions through music, as when the guy explains his broken-hearted past by cheekily making up impromptu songs on his guitar while riding a bus. It's an intriguing moment in which Carney takes the very essence of the musical genre--emotion expressed through song--and makes it completely natural and unassuming. The story in Once is incredibly thin, but it doesn't need any more narrative heft because it is less about what the characters do than what they feel, and even when Carney lays on the indie film visual aesthetics a little too thick, the movie never feels anything less than heart-wrenchingly authentic.
Copyright ©2007 James Kendrick
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