“I don’t know you, but I want you all the more for that.”
Rated R. Out on DVD. Written & Directed by John Carney, Starring Glen Hansard & Markéta Irglová.
As a general rule, I have a hard time taking musicals seriously, which differentiates me from critics, because every critic seems to soil themselves with excitement every time a big budget musical comes out (see: Moulin Rouge, Chicago, Dreamgirls, and most recently, Sweeney Todd). I guess if you’re really into costume design or art direction, or whatever, these movies are right up your alley, but the only ones I’ve ever liked have been animated (South Park/Disney movies) or of course, those starring puppets (America…fuck yeah!). It’s not because I’m trying to be a tough guy and I think musicals are girly (well, maybe a little) — I mean, I like Pixar movies, for god’s sake. But usually, I just can’t suspend my disbelief enough to ignore the fact that the characters are singing for absolutely no reason when they could easily be talking. Even when that’s not the case, the singing, dancing and excessive glitz and glamor are covering up for paint-by-numbers plots and characters.
Both of those problems are non-existent in Once, an Irish art-house favorite just making its way onto DVD. Made for $175,000 and starring two non-actors – Glen Hansard, the singer/guitarist for Irish rock band The Frames, and Markéta Irglová, a Czech singer/songwriter, it has garnered near-universal acclaim (a 98% rating on rottentomatoes) on its way to becoming a sleeper hit. I had never heard of it before about a month ago, when a ton of critics put it on their end of the year top-10 lists, with some putting it very near the top.
Once follows a week in the lives of the two unnamed protagonists (credited as “Guy” and “Girl”), whose paths cross and who bond over a shared love of music. Guy is a struggling street musician with a side job at the family business and a broken heart, courtesy of an ex-girlfriend now living in London. Girl is a recent immigrant who makes ends meet by selling flowers on the street and practices piano only thanks to the kindness of a music store owner.
This isn’t a standard Hollywood romantic comedy by any means, and watching their relationship unfold feels like you’re watching an actual relationship unfold, and the naturalistic way the movie is shot adds to this effect. The way the characters interact with each other captures an authenticity that is often absent in other films of this genre, and this is what I think has made Once click with so many critics and moviegoers.
Because Once is about musicians and making music, all of the songs fit in with the action in the story and not once do you think, “that’s odd, the characters are singing now.” The songs, while not great, are certainly competent and Irglová’s “If You Want Me” stands out, and the way the accompanying scene is shot is outstanding. Both performers have great voices and they work well together, but the bigger surprise is how believable they are in character while not singing, perhaps because both are basically playing themselves.
I wouldn’t say that Once is a must-see by any means, the plot is rather simple and not particularly memorable, but if you’re looking for a sweet, enjoyable movie that you can watch with a significant other, it’ll do the trick. A YouTube video of Hansard and Irglová performing “If You Want Me” live is below.