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A different kind of musical romance
BY MOLLY TEMPLETON
ONCE: Written and directed by John Carney. Music by Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova. Starring Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova. Fox Searchlight Pictures, 2007. R. 88 minutes.
Once is a movie that simply begins, dropping its viewers into the dingy, beautiful, crowded Dublin of its inhabitants. It begins with a musician on a street (Glen Hansard), interrupting his performance to deter a junkie with an eye on the busker’s coins. Shot plainly, unfussily, Once nonetheless is immediately immersive. The busy streets, the cramped vacuum cleaner shop where the nameless guy works with his father; later, dimly lit bedrooms and a sunlit recording studio, a dark apartment and an ordinary music store, a sunset-dappled beach — all look as they would through your own camera’s lens, undecorated, utterly real.
The product of three key talents — writer-director John Carney and musician-stars Glen Hansard (of The Frames) and young Czech songwriter Marketa Irglova — Once is aptly named. It captures a rare moment in time, an unexpectedly meaningful connection. Once is a love story, but it’s also a look at a different but no less fulfilling relationship between two people who bring out the best in each other — creatively.
Forward and sassy, a pretty, smiling girl (Irglova) asks the guy, busking at night, a question: Did he write the song he was singing? Yes? Why doesn’t he play his own songs during the day? People don’t want to hear them, he says. They want to hear songs they know. But she wants to hear his songs. A tentative connection is struck; coffee is had, a favor done. Guileless, she asks personal question after personal question. Who does he write the songs for? Where is she now? He asks if she plays music. She does; piano, but she doesn’t have one.
Every bit of dialogue in Once is like this: a conversation that sounds like one you’ve had or heard before. Carney’s film is a first cousin to last year’s Mutual Appreciation, which was equally low-fi, casual but taut with familiarity. Its song are vital to the meaning, the tone, the story of the film, but Hansard and Irglova don’t simply burst into full-throated song (aside from one autobiographical, inspired bus-ride ditty); they wander into a collaboration with a borrowed piano, and as they piece together a handful of plaintive, heartbreaking melodies, the meanings in the music shift. Hansard’s changeable voice and image-laden songs call to mind David Gray or Damien Rice; Irglova’s fragile, girlish voice threads like a silver wire through the graceful, repetitive piano line of “The Hill.” But you needn’t care for this particular kind of music to fall for the people creating it.
There is more to Once than the initially tentative, ever-building relationship of the guy and the girl, as lovely and graceful as that is. There’s the thoughtful depiction of ordinary lives, day jobs, bus rides; there’s the nuanced creative journey the pair (with accompanying musicians) takes as they collaborate and then, finally, record some songs; there’s the hope, the incredible hope, required to take the leaps that, at the end, are taken. Once is a love story about music, and a musical about love, but it’s not the big, flashy kind of love or music that are often paired. It’s the quiet kind, the kind you hug close to your chest like a journal full of confessions or a fairy tale that, to your surprise, rings utterly true. To watch this film is to feel as if you’re eavesdropping on the moment that changes a life. It’s an intimate, enchanting triumph of love and art.
Once opens Friday, July 27, at the Bijou.