Once film review | Under the Radar - Music Magazine
Monday, October 26th, 2020  


Studio: Fox Searchlight
Written and Directed by John Carney; Starring: Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová

May 17, 2007 Web Exclusive Bookmark and Share

Only a slight fraction of U.S. moviegoers who see this delightful music-based romance will know that leading man Glen Hansard is the frontman for the long-standing Irish rock band The Frames, and that befits the underdog nature of this small-budget film. Hansard plays a low-income musician/songwriterreferred to anonymously as Guy in the film creditswho works part-time for his father in a hole-in-the-wall vacuum repair shop. He supplements his earnings by busking on Dublin's Grafton Street, performing familiar songs of favorites like Van Morrison for shoppers during the day and his own compositions at night. A few minutes into the film, when he wails through a stirring nighttime solo performance of his own "Say It to Me Now" on acoustic guitar, it becomes apparent that this is a man who could earn a living writing and recording professionally. Although The Frames are lionized in their home country, they've yet to win a substantial following in the States, which makes Hansard's portrayal of the Guy all the more intriguing. Viewers undoubtedly will want to learn more about him as the film proceeds.

Likewise, the Girl, played by Markéta Irglová, is compelled to know more about the Guy when she hears him sing "Say It to Me Now." She gives him a 10-cent coin even though she's selling The Big Issuea magazine that's sold by homeless people to earn legal incomeand prods him with a series a forward questions about the song, assuming that it was written for a specific girl. A Czech immigrant, the Girl is a skilled musician but too poor to afford a piano; she is allowed to play an hour a day in a music shop. For the Guy, her interest and positive feedback spark a renewed optimism in his music and revive a romantic streak that he'd abandoned since his girlfriend cheated on him and fled to London. Their commonalitiesshe lives with her mother, he with his fatherand desire for company prompt further encounters and eventually a musical partnership. The potential for physical consummation, however, is what complicates matters.

Writer-director John Carney, a former bassist for The Frames, has said that, while being a fan of the Hollywood musical, he wanted to modernize the genre in such a way that the YouTube generation would not recognize Once as a musical. Whether or not this film is a musical is debatable, but what Carney has kept intact, sans lavish production numbers, is the sweet romantic spirit of people and community banding together for a shared cause. Von Trier's grim Dancer in the Dark (2000) debunked the musical with a tragic resolution more akin to opera, and 8 Mile (2002) and Hustle & Flow (2005) had streetwise toughness and fight to them. Once is a street film too, but there are no opponents to defeat or hustle. Carney's characters are distinguished by selflessness and more modest triumphs. The humorous opening to the film is a testament to that.

Hansard and Irglová had collaborated musically before starring together in Onceshe's known Hansard since she was 13, and they released an album as The Swell Season last yearso their natural onscreen chemistry isn't a shock. This is the first acting role for Irglová, who is still a teenager, and there are times when she appears self-conscious or off the beat, but luckily these can pass as traits that suit her charactera foreigner befriending someone in a second language. Hansard co-starred in The Commitments (1991) at about the time he was forming The Frames, but he hasn't acted since then. As the Guy, he exudes a weariness that he can shake off with a quick shrug and smile. He punctuates Carney's sparing dialogue with enthusiastic "Cool!"s and "Brilliant!"s, and his longing stares at Irglová express his character's wonderment and yearning. Cillian Murphy, a musician himself, originally was intended to play the Guy and perform the songs that Carney had asked Hansard, his old bandmate, to contribute to the film. But things fell through with Murphy. Ultimately, Hansard's comfort with his own songs and the authenticity he brings to Once are crucial.

U2 and Coldplay are the names that pop up most often in reviews of The Frames' albums, but Hansard's solo-acoustic performances in the film might elicit comparisons to Damien Rice, David Gray, or even Radiohead circa The Bends. If this all sounds a bit too syrupy to stomach, or perhaps like a rock n' roll Music and Lyrics (2007), Carney counters the threat of mawkishness with a no-frills technical scheme and a reverence for the art of song. Once was shot digitally in two weeks for 130,000 euros. Because there was virtually no looping in post-production, the dialogue sometimes is difficult to make out, and the thick brogues don't help. A subtext in the film is Dublin's transformation after Ireland's economic boom in the 1990ssometimes referred to as the Celtic Tigerand, according to Carney, the Guy and Girl are vestiges of the bohemian Dublin he and Hansard once knew. Much of the film is autobiographical, as Hansard also used to busk on Grafton Street, and he recruited Carney for The Frames when spotting him in a music shop. Carney also wanted to touch upon the immigration issue that faces Ireland in the wake of the Celtic Tiger. The Girl's flat has the only television in the building, so groups of neighbors drop in unannounced to sit on the couch and watch. There are no prominent iPods in the film. The Guy plays his recorded songs on a cheap handheld cassette player, and the portable disk player he lends to the Girl is low on batteries.

Carney devotes extended screen time to performances; most of the songs are played start to finish. It's an admirable approach, but a couple songs do slow down the film in the middle. One of them is "If You Want Me," sung by Irglová on a night walk from a convenience store back to her home. It's Once's most obvious nod to the Hollywood musical, but even though Carney employed a cranehis one luxury expensefor the tracking shot, it's not dynamic enough for us to want to see it through. A sort of music-video flashback montage also drags. Far more compelling are the scenes depicting the creative process and the germination of a recorded song. Because Hansard and Irglová are actual musicians, Once, at times, has a spellbinding documentary feel that you just don't get from something like Purple Rain (1984). Even the best rock docs aren't great at capturing the magic of songwriting and collaboration. As maligned as it is, Ishtar (1987) still might have the best, most honest scenes detailing the labors of songwriting. In Once, however, the language of music comes naturally to the songwriting pair. It's just that their respective loose ends preclude a future together.

Once was turned down by the Toronto, Edinburgh and Telluride film festivals, only to win the World Dramatic Audience Award at Sundance this year. Critics love to champion these little films that could, especially during the weeks of monster-budgeted sequels, but let's hope that Once can retain its Cinderella status. Some of the adulation seems overblown, and with Fox Searchlight on a roll, there's suddenly the imminent danger of seeing photos of Drew Barrymore hanging out backstage at Swell Season shows. Key tracks from the film already have appeared on The Swell Season and The Frame's The Cost, which was released earlier this year to generally positive reviews but little fanfare. What's the new slang for everybody's favorite band that they used to ignore?





Author rating: 7/10

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Scott S.
May 22nd 2010

I disagree that the wonderful tracking shot of Marketa Irglova ‘slows the movie down’.  I love this long walk through night-time Dublin, while Ms. Irglova signs her wonderful song. 

I wonder how this was filmed.  I assume some sort of steadicam.