Iffen you’ve been reading me for some time, you know how much I dislike hype and that I’m a firm believer in the practice of approaching arts and entertainment artifacts with the lowest possible expectations (you’re less likely to be disappointed). So it’s with great trepidation that I take on the task of telling you about my favorite film of the year thus far.
Some viewing Once may argue that it barely qualifies as something that could hold the big screen and that it's really more TV or indie-fest fare, but you folk can go off and talk amongst yourselves; I’ll be over here trying to get my hands on the soundtrack, while already feeling life-enriched for having seen this movie.
Irish street musician guy meets Czech immigrant girl -- what's so special? Well, seemingly shot for a dime, featuring a cast of relative unknowns and possessing a storyline that’s almost absurd in its simplicity, Once is, to my taste, about as close to perfect a movie as one could wish for – that is, if one is both a lover of good music and romance. And if one is me, one can only bestow the highest conceivable compliment:
Damn -- wish I’d written that.
The one who did write and direct it, John Carney (pictured above, center), has taken one of the oldest stories in filmdom -- boy meeting girl and the consequences thereof -- and rendered it freshly new. While almost every plot beat in his minimalist scenario is a landmine loaded with potential cliches, Carney is singularly adept at side-stepping the obvious. He approaches obligatory moments -- scenes we've seen in hundreds of movies -- and manages to tweak them, for the most part by simply being true to the characters he's created.
His romantic dramedy also revitalizes another genre by making this a wholly true-to-life musical movie, and in this, a big portion of the credit must be given to Glen Hansard, who stars (as "the Guy," since neither of the leads are ever named) and who wrote most of the songs. Since the Guy is a singer-songwriter, a busker who's rarely without his axe, and his songs are autobiographical in spirit, the numbers emerge naturally.
While his compositions mostly don't function as old-fashioned "book musical" songs (i.e. move the plot forward), they do reveal character; the performance of one duet in particular (I'm giving away no details whatsoever because I want you to be be as delightfully surprised as I was) packs more emotional wallop and subtext into under four minutes of playing and singing than many scripts I've seen achieve in an entire act's worth of dialogue.
They're also great for exposition. There's a marvelous scene where Girl asks Guy for the real story on the break-up between him and his ex, and the Guy, who's got his ever-present guitar out as they ride the bus, improvises a series of short songs that encapsulate his romantic history while making fun of three kinds of "those songs," the last of them laugh-out-loud funny.
In fact, the experience of watching Once is much like hearing a great new album by a group you've never heard before. You keep thinking, "hey, this song's even better than the last one!" Hansard, leader of Irish band The Frames, is the all-important linchpin of credibility for the entire enterprise: we have to buy into the idea that the Guy really is "that good," and due to Hansard's efforts, he is.
You could call the movie a triumph of the small. It works wonders with a mere slip of a story, largely by refusing to muck up the mundane. It's chockful of the tiny quotidian details that get left out of most Hollywood fare, caught by documentary-like camera-work that's so canny and unobtrusive, it gives you the impression that an invisible friend of the characters just happened to be there to get it all on film. A catalogue of recognizable contemporary human behavior, the film finds one of its swooningly emotional peaks in a latenight run to buy some new batteries for a Discman.
But now I've done it, of course, exactly what I shouldn't have done -- selling you on the thing in a way that's almost guaranteed to yield disappointment. A little indie pic like this can't really be all that, can it?
Maybe not. But screenwriters who subscribe to the "tell a simple story with complicated emotions" school will certainly appreciate it, and anyone who's ever written a song (or has been close to someone who has) will be rewarded with some satisfying shocks of recognition. And if you've got a romantic streak ("Used to have one," the Guy says ruefully at one point, in denial that he's still got one as big as all outdoors), then you're apt to want to do what I'm going to do.
Yup. Gotta see Once twice.