Written and directed by John Carney, Once is a non-stylized, naturalistic drama built as a musical that magically turns every song into an event in itself. Music has ways of highlighting films, and at times can transcend plot to put you at the mercy of a single moment, such as Keith Carradine singing “I’m Easy” in Robert Altman’s Nashville, but never have I sat through a film and been completely overcome with enjoyment over every chord, every syncopated verse, of every song. Carney has found a way to reestablish what is so beautiful about not only film, but about music as well.
Set in Dublin, we follow the simple story of two people drawn together. A beautifully open yet guarded young Czech immigrant (Marketa Irglova) approaches a 30-something Irish lad (Glen Hansard) as he bangs away on his beat-up guitar in the street late at night, which turns out to be the only time he can play his own songs, where in the daytime he would lose the public’s interest by not playing something recognizable. The two (we never learn their names) form a peculiar bond over the course of a few days, a bond that has a distinct line, though at first glance we can’t point out what it is. Over time we learn she has a son, and a husband in the Czech Republic. He too has an ex-girlfriend living in London, and hopes to win her back one day. Both seem weighted by their own demons, yet their natural attraction and curiosity about one another remains clear. It turns out the girl also plays the piano and that provides them the only excuse they need to spend time with each other as they write and perform enormously approachable songs that make The Bodyguard soundtrack feel like Xanadu.
Hansard, who wrote all of the film’s songs and is a member of the Irish group the Frames, performs with utter conviction songs that are odes to troubled relationships. His dulcet tone coming from his innocent face with deeply set eyes and thick orange beard will slowly begin to build and stretch and soon peak as he breaks into a vociferous yet heartbreakingly restrained cry. When they play together, the songs work as a narrative for the thoughts that they may be feeling for each other. “I don’t know you/But I want you/All the more for that” are the first few lines from the first time they play together, and is an allegory for the beginning of something beautiful. When she sings “If You Want Me” to a demo through a pair of headphones, she is perhaps responding to his all-too apparent attraction to her. But the best moment comes when they rent a recording studio for a weekend and he growls out lines to “When Your Mind’s Made Up,” signaling he is at the mercy of her decisions. The music captures the emotion, and as for the film, it captures something radically more grand.
As a reviewer who didn’t cover this film upon its initial release, I feel responsible to do it now. Once is slowing gaining an audience in the midst of the summer’s blockbusters. It has a higher per theater average than most large-budget films in release right now, and I believe this is because, given the lackluster selections available at this point in the year, it has become more relevant than ever.