The Cost of Success: When Lives Intersect With Fame

Remember that disarming little Irish indie film, Once, from a few years back? Glen Hansard of The Frames plays a Dublin busker, and Marketa Irglová an immigrant street vendor, with whom he shares a serendipitous musical connection. The song used in Once, “Falling Slowly”, won an Academy Award for best original song, yielding probably the most memorable moment of that year’s Oscars when Irglová’s acceptance speech was preempted by the orchestra’s music cue to leave the stage. Host Jon Stewart then invited her back following the commercial break and in her quiet self-effacing voice said, “This is such a big deal, not only for us, but for all other independent musicians and artists that spend most of their time struggling, and… it’s just the proof that no matter how far out your dreams are, it’s possible. And, you know, fair play to those who dare to dream and don’t give up. And this song was written from a perspective of hope, and hope at the end of the day connects us all, no matter how different we are.”

First off, if you haven’t seen Once, do whatever you can to make sure you see it. And fast. Hollywood always gets music movies so utterly wrong. Once is the exception. For my money, it’s the best fictional music movie, ever. That’s probably because although it’s technically fictional, it was actually written with Hansard and Irglová in mind, two people who are decidedly not actors but musicians. If you were drawn to the effortless charm and chemistry between the two on screen, it came as no surprise to learn that that chemistry had a lot to do with the fact that they had become lovers during the making of Once.

Well, if you were wondering what became of Hansard and Irglová after Once, the recently released to DVD documentary The Swell Season serves as a kind of “whatever happened to them” epilogue. This is a good thing since the The Swell Season’s theatrical release last year was so brief and limited. Not to mention the fact that the documentary happens to be one of the most intimate fly on the wall peeks at the effects of stardom on two people at two very different points in their lives. It’s arguably the most accomplished music documentary of its kind since D.A. Pennebaker’s Don’t Look Back.

Filmed over a three-year period from 2007 to 2010, The Swell Season documents three long years of nearly uncensored access. Made by first-time co-directors Nick August-Perna, Chris Dapkins and Carlo Mirabella-Davis and shot beautifully in black and white, cinema verité style, the film follows Hansard and Irglová on their post-Once world tour, on stage and off, at home and abroad.

Over the course of the film, Hansard and Irglová emerge as eerily similar to the characters they played in Once. He’s the charismatic passionate one, she’s the grounding unpretentious presence. The two struggle to come to terms with their fame — and eventually with their relationship. But for very different reasons. For Hansard, almost 20 years Irglová’s senior, the new-found success comes after having paid his dues over and over again from the time he was 13 and left school to go busking on the streets of Dublin to years slugging it out for only a modicum of success fronting the criminally underappreciated The Frames. For Irglová, who was about 18 when filming began, the notoriety is all new to her.

It’s important to make the distinction that the kind of fame we’re talking about here is that of an indie band getting the big buzz treatment but still operating very much in the indie rock world. Hansard and Irglová don’t travel in Leer jets, they don’t rub elbows with the stars, and they don’t play arenas. They travel by bus, play at theaters, and meet a modest amount of fans clamoring at backstage doors.

That said, it’s a tribute to the filmmakers who capture the essence and motivations of the two, which is so clearly the music itself. Hansard and Irglová’s relationship, as well as every other aspect of their lives, is filtered through the veneer of their creative bond. That’s why it’s not about the level of success they’re facing, but the point where each is in their own personal evolution at the moment when their lives intersect with fame.

And this is noteworthy, because when fame comes, Hansard and Irglová are at totally different stages of their lives and careers, which is why they react to the sudden onslaught of attention from admirers totally differently. Having slugged it out for a couple decades fronting The Frames, Hansard is more at ease with the kind of after-show schmoozing and B.S.’ing that’s required. Whereas Irglová, still in her teens and a complete newbie to the music industry, chafes at all the attention and soon begins to waver under the strain.

Initially, Hansard adopts the role of both mentor and nurturing lover. Almost like he feels responsible for getting her into all this and knows only too well how the music business can chew up and spit out victims. He reminds her, at turns, “It’s a great life we have, isn’t it?” There are also touching moments like when Hansard plays cheerleader and poignantly tells her, “Come on, cheer up… if you’re miserable, I’ll fall apart.” But this becomes tiresome, and as we watch a scene where Irglová is complaining about her growing discomfort interacting with fans, Hansard finally tells her, “I’m just so tired of that conversation” and leaves her backstage while he goes out for another meet-and-greet.

While Irglová agonizes under the weight of all the attention, Hansard, in turn, suffers more philosophical difficulties with fame. Hansard begins to question whether any of the new-found success really matters which creates friction with his partner, most pointedly, in an emotional conversation at an outdoor café, and it’s at this point forward that their real-life romance begins to unravel.

The story is not solely about the fragile relationship between the two. It’s most poignant moments for me are spent with Hansard’s working-class mother and father. The Oscar her son won has brought unbridled pride for his mother and the whole town, to boot. His mother can’t stop talking about the Oscar, but Hansard can neither understand the significance of the award nor can he accept the simple pleasure it brings her and instead wonders if any of it really matters.

The awakening comes in a scene with Hansard’s father who is dying of alcoholism and who has deeply buried demons dating back to a promising boxing career he abandoned for his family. “I think he made a decision to bury something,” Hansard says. “Whatever it was, even though it was never spoken about in the home, we fucking felt it, and in a way, I kind of felt like I had to be the one to carry that all the way.” In probably the most touching moment in the film, his father (who does drink himself to death before the film concludes) takes his son’s hand and says to the camera, “When I seen him winning the Oscar, I said, ‘Fuck it, he’s done it for me.’”

All of these scenes are interspersed with riveting tight close up onstage footage that is so intimate that you almost feel like you, and you alone, are sharing it with the two musicians: Hansard, the heart-on-the-sleeve cathartic extrovert to Irglová’s understated, unassuming quiet cool. These live performances tell a story, on its own, so personal you almost feel like you shouldn’t be eavesdropping.

As the film winds down, Irglová explains that in the beginning of their relationship she adopted many of Hansard’s ideas of the world and opinions on life, but over time she gained the courage to find her own voice and branch out. They tell us their relationship has ended, but you get the feeling it was not so much a failed romance but a result of Irglová’s own restlessness and individual growth. Hansard tells us they are now closer as friends. No one leaves angry. No one is bitter.

The film ends with a gorgeous scene shot from the back of the stage at a sold out Radio City Music Hall and Hansard emoting from the stage while Irglová watches from the wings beaming with the look of pride and happiness for someone she obviously admires and still cares deeply about. A bittersweet parting with each following different musical paths? A hint at a reunion that may one day come? With the benefit of a little research you will find that Hansard is preparing a solo record and Irglová got married to a sound engineer from Chicago, and she just released a solo record.

I think it’s too simple to conclude that music brought them together, but success broke them apart. It’s not success that doomed their relationship. She grew up. In that sense, the film is a kind of coming of age story for Irglová. For Hansard, the film is a moment in time in which his long and continuing musical journey intersected with success through happenstance. All part of the journey for Hansard, the lifer — the street busker playing for whoever happens upon him, at the Oscars in tux and tails, playing a hole in the wall club like it’s a sold out stadium, or shaking down the echoes out in an Irish field with only the emerald and beyond. That’s not to say music means any less to Irglová, but it’s clear by the film’s end that her own personal evolution has only just begun. And maybe they’ll meet again somewhere down the line.

Until then, we’re left with some extraordinary music and stunning performances in this film. Is this a failed romance? Hardly.