Once (Ireland, 2007)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

The traditional movie musical may not be dead, but it's on life support, a victim of the changing taste of movie-goers. Once is an effort to provide a musical that works for a modern audience by grounding the situation in reality and cutting out the corniness and implausibility of characters suddenly and inexplicably bursting into song. What was magical in the '40s and '50s may be seen as silly by today's standards. However, if a film can find a way to make the songs part of the storyline, a huge impediment is avoided. That's what writer/director John Carney has achieved in Once.

The film has a minimal plot, not even going far enough to name its characters. It's about the relationship between a street musician (Glen Hansard) and a kindred spirit - a younger girl (Marketa Irglova) who hears his songs and compels him to get into a studio and record them. The attraction between them is palpable, but their relationship remains platonic. He is pining over a girlfriend who left him to relocate to London (where he plans to go in several days' time) and she left behind a husband in the Czech Republic when she came to Dublin in search of a better life for her and her infant daughter. As close as they become during their time together, nowhere do they connect more fully and meaningfully than through the music they both adore.

The songs - and there are about a dozen of them - are seamlessly integrated into the fabric of the understated romance. There's no sudden, jarring transition in which a musical number breaks the film's delicate spell. There are several wonderful moments, such as when the girl and guy first connect while singing something called "Falling Slowly" in a piano shop (he's strumming the guitar and she's accompanying him on a keyboard), or when a sound board operator in a studio takes notice of what he's hearing. The music's lyrics refer to events in the past of both characters but, as they share the experience of singing to one another, they take on a more immediate power. The protagonists never admit their feelings to one another in words, but the truth is apparent in their music. (Technically, this isn't true. There is a moment when the man asks her whether she loves her husband. She responds, "No. I love you." However, her response is in unsubtitled Czech, so the man does not understand her - nor do audience members who don't know the language.)

For his leading man, director Carney looked up an old friend. The director, who began his public career as the bass player for the group the Frames and went on to direct their early videos, approached Frames lead singer Glen Hansard about the role. Despite having only one acting part on his resume, from the 1991 film The Commitments, Hansard agreed. With him, he brought 17-year old Marketa Irglova (in her first film appearance), a friend with whom he had recently recorded an album. On screen, the two display unforced chemistry and their emoting during the musical scenes is superb. There is an uneven quality to their performances, however; when they're not singing, there are moments of awkwardness.

Traditional musicals rely on picture perfect cinematography, but Carney is no Busby Berkley. Once is filmed documentary style, with shaking hand-held shots and poorly framed close-ups. The approach changes mid-way through the film and things appear polished by the time the movie closes with an impressive tracking shot, but those who find unsteady shots to be motion sickness-inducing may have a few worrisome moments near the outset.

All of the music in Once was composed and performed by the leads. This is a rarity in movie musicals where the lead actors are often overdubbed during songs because their voices don't pass muster. Here, Carney trusts to the vocal and songwriting talents of his leading couple. Their songs are a mixture of folk and rock and are unaccompanied by dance moves. They are shown playing their instruments, often with great passion, but never do they break character and start doing something a person in their position would not do in real life.

Once won the 2007 audience award at the Sundance Film Festival. It was subsequently purchased for U.S. distribution by Fox Searchlight, which has made the dubious decision to release it in late May opposite the likes of Shrek the Third and Pirates of the Caribbean 3. Certainly, no one expects Once to topple these blockbusters from their perches, but it deserves to be seen and offers more real human emotion than most of the year's would be box office busters. This isn't a perfect motion picture but, in the midst of summer's vapid pursuit of spectacle, a movie that provides real heart and emotion is a rare find.

Once (Ireland, 2007)

Director: John Carney
Cast: Glen Hansard, Marketa Irglova
Screenplay: John Carney
Cinematography: Tim Fleming
Music: Glen Hansard, Marketa Irglova
U.S. Distributor: Fox Searchlight
Run Time: 1:25
U.S. Release Date: 2007-05-18
MPAA Rating: "R" (Profanity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1