On a sunny day last spring, I had the thirst for an adventure but, with only $20 left until payday, none of the funding available to make such a journey possible.
With few other options, I went to the movies to take in a double feature. First, I saw Judd Apatow’s Knocked Up which, even in early June, was already the most talked about movie of the summer. Next up was a small indie called Once, which I’d never heard of until reading a blurb in a movie magazine. It was the rare, completely satisfying day at the movies – but also a very odd day, as no two movies could be more different.
Although Knocked Up has hidden depths, the film ultimately smoothes over the harsh reality of adulthood with off-color jokes, California sunshine and a happy, if hesitant, ending. The setting of Once, on the other hand, is the foggy, dank streets of Dublin. And our heroes – an unnamed Guy and Girl – cannot stay together, even if they are meant to be.
Largely improvised and made with an intentionally simple plot and shoestring budget, Once is director John Carney’s attempt to make a “modern” musical. Music is the heart of the film. But there are no candy-colored sets or bombastic dance numbers to ease the progression in which all problems are solved.
Instead, there are two human beings with real-life challenges – poverty, dead-end jobs, and fractured relationships – able to gain a few minutes’ grace through their passion for song. Their successes seem small compared to, say, Tracy Turnblad becoming Baltimore’s sweetheart in Hairspray, but these characters are real, engaging and familiar.
Carney reveals on the DVD extras that the movie’s title and driving plot is based on real men he knows in Ireland – Guinness-soaked guys who claim all their problems will be solved once they get a better job, a better girlfriend or, more generally, a different life. Trade the bar for a street corner and you’ve got the plight of the Guy (Glen Hansard), a talented musician who busks on the streets of Dublin. Guy might be an airplane flight to London away from his destiny: a record deal and the woman he loves. Trapped by fear of failing, and anger at his two-timing ex, however, he won’t take the leap.
Enter the Girl (Markéta Irglová), a Czech immigrant and street vendor who spends her breaks playing classical music on the piano at a local music store because she’s too poor to buy her own.
Girl is a force of nature and, as played by the incandescent Irglová, she literally lights up any room you put her in. She and Guy never kiss, they never hook up or make love, but over the course of a few days they form a connection that is deeper than either has with their erstwhile significant others.
Their relationship, both personal and musical, sets Guy on track and, in an exhilarating sequence toward the end of the film, he finally records that demo and takes a step toward changing his “once” from the preamble of an unfulfilled dream to the opening lines of a cherished memory.
But the director and the actors never let the audience forget that this couple’s brief moment in the sun is enjoyed on borrowed time. In one sequence, for example, Girl spends an evening writing lyrics to go with one of Guy’s melodies. She’s absorbed in the story of the song but can’t quite get lost – there are dirty dishes to clean, a daughter to take care of, and a last-minute run for batteries when her borrowed CD player goes dead.
Hansard and Irglová are musicians with little to no acting credits prior to this film, but they are immediately believable as these characters – so believable, in fact, that some fans thought the movie was a documentary. That’s just one of the interesting tidbits revealed in the DVD’s two making-of documentaries and two commentaries (one focuses on the film as a whole; the other just on the music.) Watching the bonus material makes it clear just how organic and collaborative making this film really was. Carney and the actors go over scenes, turning them inside out to find the right way to convey the feelings of each one.
In one clip, the trio prepare to film the moment when Guy, who has taken Girl for a ride on his father’s motorcycle, asks if she loves her absent husband. Carney asks Irglová to reply “no” in Czech – until she explains that the word is so similar to the English that it would be impossible for Guy not to understand her reply.
The greatest joy of giving Once “the car test” – or taking it out of a high-tech movie theater and into the home – is the discovery that the cherished moment in time seen on screen wasn’t just a conceit created for the film. Carney and the actors each talk at length about how making the movie was a special experience.
Traditional musicals are the ultimate way to escape at the movies. Big and bright, they make everything seem OK. Once is bittersweet but subtly, quietly manages to accomplish the same thing.