Once

The Little Indie/Musical/Romance That Could

Main Cast: Glen Hansard, Marketa Irglova

Director: John Carney

As much as I enjoy the Academy Awards show every year – and I do, despite the long running time, boring parts and overall general weirdness, I do enjoy it – it never makes me shed a tear. Not even a lump in my throat at the weepiest, mushiest acceptance speech. Nope, I’m cold as stone – I’m not moved by the so often feigned emotions of people who make millions of dollars and then congratulate themselves for it with extravagant awards (and yet I watch with glee – I’ll own that bit of hypocrisy). But this year, the 2007 Academy Awards, was different. Not only did I get a lump in my throat, I cried for two people who never expected to be on that stage. Those people were Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova, who won the Academy Award for best original song – a song showcased in their film Once. It was a beautiful moment for a wonderful film.

Once is a small independent film written and directed by John Carney. The very simple plot revolves around two never named characters played by Hansard and Irglova. They meet by chance on the streets of Dublin and their shared love of music brings them together in a way that will change them both.

Oh, that sounds so sappy – like a typical tearjerker musical. But let me assure you, Once is in no way typical. Not only does it throw the conventions of the typical “romance” out the window, it disposes of nearly every one of the clichés of the “musical” at the same time. That’s really an achievement for a film with a shoestring budget and unknown actors. An even greater achievement is that in tossing aside convention, Once succeeds in breaking down barriers and involving a new audience in what have become stereotyped genres.

The dialogue shared by the main characters – as well as the many peripherals – is fairly sparse. The bare skeleton of the plot is laid out in dialogue, but the music is what fills it in, giving it depth and raw emotional power. These two people are both struggling with personal demons that they lay bare in their music with an intensity they could never match with mere words. The connection between the main characters is palpable, and never more so than when they sing together. It is here where their shared passion, talent and loneliness shone through.

Clearly musicians first and foremost, Hansard and Irglova are not spectacularly talented actors. Their spoken dialogue tends to be a little stiff and feel a little unnatural. Irglova has a slight edge on Hansard, being able to draw us into her complicated world with a more assured delivery, despite English not being her first language. Regardless of any acting shortcomings, both leads are endlessly charming and so likeable that we want nothing but the best for them from the opening scenes. Filmed on the streets of Dublin, Once has both a low budget feel and a sense of realism. There are moments that feel more like documentary than fiction – the actors unpolished and the sets uncomplicated by artifice.

The real core of Once is the music. Written and performed largely by Hansard and Irglova, the music evolves from natural situations in which the characters find themselves – it’s a musical about musicians. There is no random breaking into song here, no dimming lights or glitzy costumes to highlight anything as a “production number” – it’s all part and parcel of the story as Hansard works toward his musical goals and Irglova rediscovers a passion she thought she had put away. The song that won the Oscar is performed in a music store, where Irglova and Hansard fall into what feels so much like a natural moment of shared creativity that it gives me gooseflesh. To be so talented and to feel so free to express deeply felt emotion through music is an incredible gift – to watch it happen is delightful.

Describing the music is hard. It’s clearly there to impart a message and complete the film’s story, but the mournful melodies and sweetly and passionately sung lyrics are also strong and lovely indie folk/pop songs on their own. Most of the music is set to only the piano and acoustic guitar, played by Irglova and Hansard. My only complaint about the music is that it does have a tendency to melt together – Hansard has a certain style and his songs can start to sound alike after awhile. Carney helps alleviate this issue by interspersing some songs by other writers as well as one sung primarily by Irglova. It works well to cover a potential distraction.

Watching Hansard and Irglova perform during the Oscar ceremony, I was struck by their composure as well as the contrast between them and the rest of the participants in the show. Obviously dressed off the rack without assist from stylists and make-up artists and others with the skills to obscure and perfect, the couples’ appreciation felt honest and their graciousness was a pleasure to watch. I love independent film, and this is why – in a year where third installments of big budget blockbusters ruled the summer and big budget star vehicles ruled the Oscars, a tiny little movie from Dublin got a chance to shine. Once deserved that moment and proves that indie films can have the heart and quality to play with the big boys. It’s a musical romance that defies convention and does so with spirit and passion.  4 1/2 stars and highly recommended.

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