A new almost-musical from Ireland, “Once” neatly transcends even the hoariest of cliches about the sublime communicative powers of pop music. This is a treat and a surprise, as films this slight and unassuming often seem more apt to curl up into themselves than approach any sort of expansiveness. And make no mistake, “Once” is slight. A tentative love story between two musicians framed through the lens of an erstwhile folk musical, “Once” is a tiny movie in the best sense: full of minuscule gestures and glances laden with meaning, and carrying the sense of something intricately labored over so as to provide the impression of simplicity and ease.
Neither of its two main characters-played by Glen Hansard, of Irish pub-rock band the Frames, and Marketa Irglov – are supplied with names; she’s a Czech immigrant in Dublin who happens upon a passionate street busker exorcising demons of a past relationship through a battered acoustic guitar late one evening. It’s classic meet-cute – she returns the next afternoon dragging a broken vacuum cleaner (he fixes the machines by day in his father’s shop) and coaxes him over to a local music shop where the pair bang out a guitar/piano duet on “Falling Softly,” a song from their real-life collaborative album “The Swell Season.” Over the course of the film, the pair work their way into a recording studio complete with backing band to set a real demo to tape. The songs and interstitial bits of singing function for the most part to advance the narrative and make interiority explicit-as with any good musical. Performances aren’t chopped up into montages (at least until a few unfortunate bits towards the end) and director John Carney makes room amidst the more straight-ahead singer songwriter material for a bit of variety: Hansard, while on a bus, performing an impromptu life story that careens from honky-tonk to Anglo folk to heavy metal is particularly notable both in its off-the-cuff ingenuity and how it showcases both performers’ natural charms.
Even in the current more technologically incline musical moment, the romance of the acoustic guitar still holds sway in Carney’s grayed-out pre-spring Dublin. About the only notable flaws of “Once” lie in its all-too-expected veering towards and away from a romance between the two principals (after an early proposition from Hansard is rebuffed, this probably should have been left alone) and the hokey ease with which Hansard’s songs turn around even the most callous of listener-whether a bored session producer, his own father, a bank loan officer, or, yes, a young Czech immigrant who supports herself through cleaning jobs and selling roses on the street.
But then, there’s something to be said for the charms of the hokey and well-worn. The film’s opening set piece features a chase sequence that has Hansard go Keystone Kop while pursuing a street junkie who ripped him off. When the thug’s caught breathless in a nearby park, the musician offers a simple: “If you needed money, you should have just asked” and hands over the disputed cash – it’s a bit of morbid, resigned comedy that sketches out character more quickly and accurately than anything I can recall seeing recently. Carney’s just as attuned to the specificities of place: this “new” Dublin of Eastern European immigrants and international commerce is starting to take on the every-city feel of much of Western Europe, but London’s still the “big city” and hints of that Ireland-of-the-mind leak around the edges – this doesn’t necessarily refer to the Thin Lizzy cover band encountered later in the film. Even if you don’t care at all about the Frames (which may very well be most of those who read this review) or find Hansard’s songs in “Once” particularly compelling, it’s hard not to find something to hang onto in Carney’s rigorously trad storytelling. Carney’s made a great deal out of very little-not unlike the way Curtis Hanson, through care, craft, and an electric performance, elevated “8 Mile.” And not unlike, say, a perfect pop song.
[Jeff Reichert is co-founder and editor of Reverse Shot and currently works for Magnolia Pictures.]