Director: John Carney
Screenwriter: John Carney
Executive Producers: David Collins
Producer: Martina Niland
Cast: Glen Hansard, Marketa Irglova
Ireland, 2006, 88 min.
*A Dublin busker, who ekes out a living playing guitar and repairing vacuum cleaners for his dad's shop, meets a young Czech immigrant who sells roses on the same street. She likes his song, and what's more…she has a broken vacuum cleaner! They soon find themselves playing music together in a nearby music store (since she can't afford a piano, the owner lets her play his floor models). Over the course of a week, they form a musical rapport and, newly inspired, decide to record an album.
Once may loosely be classified as a musical, but it has a refreshing vérité inflection. Conceived by director John Carney as a "video album," it sports a scrappy, unembellished naturalism. Carney took a risk in choosing professional musicians over professional actors, but Glen Hansard (of the well-known Irish band the Frames) and Marketa Irglova (a Czech singer/songwriter) are not only remarkably charming together but they're equally adept with the more melancholy shades (Hansard's lonely soul, stuck on an old flame; Irglova struggling to support a mother and daughter). Burdened and brokenhearted, their musical bond is the heart of the film and of their love.
Great music aside, what makes this film special is how little effort it seems to exert. If it's possible to be blindsided by simplicity--a light touch, Once does it.
*Summary by John Nein, SUNDANCE Film Programmer
ONCE is a very sweet and simple story that wears its heart on its sleeve. Without a doubt, there is nothing else like this film playing at Sundance. It is being called an Irish musical, but its not like any musical I’ve seen. First of all, this film is shot on what seems like a miniscule budget, with non-professional actors, no artificial lighting, and filmed with what must have been the cheapest 35mm camera in the world. The color palette is prett dirty, realistic, and urban Ireland does not come off that well. It is safe to say this is not a film filled with images to inspire tourism in Ireland. I wouldn’t call it a musical, just a movie that is all about music, its creation and performance. This film doesn’t exist in a ‘musical’ universe where characters sing dialogue to each other. ONCE is set in our real world, with characters singing songs to each other every now and then. There are many performances of full songs that are caught on film, uncut. At times, it brings up the feeling of a concert film, the joy one can get from watching a song performed well on screen. Just a guy and his guitar, a girl and her piano. However, the movie does run a bit too long, there were probably 2 songs too many in the film, a couple seemed to drag. Also, at times, it is hard to understand some of the dialogue through the thick Irish accents.
The film starts out as a pretty typical boy-meets-girl-cute kind of plot, but pretty the film quickly moves to its first, best music performance. The lead guy and girl, unnamed in this film, find a piano in the back of a music store. Slowly, they start playing and singing a full song they both know, hesitantly feeling each other out. They get more and more confident as they play and by the end of the song, they have reached a beautiful height of musical communion. As the movie continues, they build a band and we get to explore the drama of recording in a studio. I really enjoyed this part of the film, how the callous studio engineer starts to really enjoy the music, the improvisational nature of the song-writing, and the all-nighters with cold pizza and beers. That wonderful feeling of a group of people relating through their love of music.
Throughout the whole film, the relationship between the lead guy and girl gets stronger and stronger, but they are both still hung-up on their ex-es. When they say goodbye in the street, it is a wonderfully simple scene. Instead of falling into each other’s arms and moving on with their lives, they acknowledge that they both have strong feelings for the other, but they have to resolve their past relationships. In a way, they both realize that they met, emotionally, at the wrong time in their lives. It is a nice, understated demonstration of a realistic conclusion to their friendship.
The Q & A afterwards was fascinating, as the director and both lead actors were present. Both actors were first-timers, but both had been musically trained all their lives. They both sang a few songs from the movie, to the loud applause of the audience. The actor, Glen Hansard, brought out his guitar, the one he played in the movie. It is quite a unique guitar, with huge holes in the wood below the strings that had been worn through by his playing over many years. I’ve never seen a guitar played so long that the player’s hands, strumming the guitar, had worn holes in solid wood! If that doesn’t speak to the player’s passion, I don’t know what does. They also had a great story about a robbery scene they filmed in the street. Since they had no money for permits, they filmed the scene on the fly with hidden cameras and didn’t tell pedestrians they were filming. One of the actors, was supposed to ‘steal’ the guitar from the lead guy and run away, the lead guy yelling after him. On the first take, a pedestrian decided to be a hero and stop the ‘thief’, so he came around a car and gave the actor a full-fledged, wound-up kick to the nuts. The filmmakers quickly filled the pedestrians in and the actor was able to come back the next day and finish the scene.ONCE is a beautiful movie in love with music and performance. It runs too long, and is not for those who prefer complicated plots and cynical storylines. This is a story of heart and passion. About two people who can’t survive in the world without song.