The world has lost faith in traditional movie musicals. Somehow it’s no longer acceptable for characters to burst into song and dance – unless they’re parodying Hollywood’s heyday or they’re the cute creations of an animators’ studio. Yet this little Irish film, shot on a shoestring and featuring non-professional actors, manages to be a moving musical love story that’s wholly believable and totally unpretentious.
A young man (known only as ‘the guy’) stands on Dublin’s busy street corners, playing his guitar and singing. The sounds he makes are almost painful – heartfelt but unpolished, strident with desperation. As he’s busking into the chaos, he’s approached by a poor young Czech woman (‘the girl’) selling roses – and in one scene, copies of The Big Issue. She’s a new immigrant, struggling to support her mother and baby daughter, but she has a secret talent. When the pair wander into a music store, she sits down at the piano and begins to play. Guy and girl begin to pick out a tune together, their two voices, and two instruments combining into a tentative but hauntingly beautiful harmony. And so, in the coming weeks, they talk, sing, and write some songs together, with their story climaxing in an intense and cathartic weekend at a borrowed recording studio.
The film’s authentic feel is augmented by the fact that its two lead actors are accomplished musicians who’ve previously collaborated. The guy is Glen Hansard, lead singer of the acclaimed and popular Irish rock band The Frames. The girl is Czech singer and pianist Marketa Irglova. Just seventeen years old at the time of shooting, she’d already recorded ‘The Swell Season’ an album of duets with Hansard. With her strong accent, her big-nosed natural beauty and her brave innocence, Irglova makes this film sing – both literally and metaphorically.
Directed by John Carney (On the Edge) – an ex-Frames’ bass player – Once is shot in realistic almost-documentary style. The music takes centre stage, comprising at least two thirds of the film’s time, yet it’s never too much. You want more of these sweet heart-tingling songs with their memory-imprinting minor-chord refrains and their simple poetic lyrics that never strain too much in their intent to underline the plot’s wispy narrative thread. Once is quite simply one of the best films you’ll see about the creative collaborative process.