Saturday, July 19, 2014


ONCE             A-            
Ireland  (86 mi)  2006  d:  John Carney

a longtime master of sublimely melodramatic sad-bastard music 
—a commentator’s description on National Public Radio of Glen Hansard

One of the best double features seen in years, seeing ONCE immediately following Hal Hartley’s deliriously upbeat FAY GRIM (2006), shot in two weeks for under $150,000, this is one of those small films that works, a grassroots hit at Sundance generating such superlative reviews that by the time you get into the theater, you half expect it to fall apart at some point, while the other half, of course, hopes it’s everything it’s cracked up to be.  Fortunately, this film doesn’t need to grab you by the throat to pull you in, it does so instantly with the emotional sincerity of the music, which always sounds so heartening, even as it’s describing hearts that are breaking, beautifully shot by Tim Fleming who consistently captures the immediacy of the moment and the freewheeling swagger of the two wonderfully refreshing lead characters, making this one of the more unique twists on an age old love story.  Known only as the Guy and the Girl, he’s a thirtyish street singer that repairs Hoover vacuum cleaners at home with his dad, Glen Hansard from the Irish rock group The Frames and Alan Parker’s THE COMMITMENTS (1991), a guy whose songs bear a strange similarity to the optimism and melodic simplicity of Cat Stevens when he was Cat Stevens, while she, Markéta Irglová, is a younger Czech émigré who sells magazines and flowers on the street, living with her mother and small daughter, a girl with classical piano training who bears a strange resemblance to the recently deceased British actress Katrin Cartlidge, as she combines intelligence and a very forward curiosity with an eloquent stage presence, and at only age 17 during the filming, she reminds us of just how glorious it is to be young.  Written and directed by John Carney, who was a bass player for The Frames in the early 90’s, this film makes no attempt to overreach, but does an excellent job of living within its small means by creating two well-defined characters living on the fringe of working class Dublin, both with the love of music in common, and with the same loss of an affectionate “other.”  The Guy realizes early in the film his mistake at coming on to the Girl, and his face tells all, as he knows he screwed up the instant he violated this fragile trust these two developed on the street when after hearing him sing she was amazed at the profound seriousness of one of his songs, knowing he loved someone, as she could sense an intimate outpouring of personal confession, which he found exasperatingly obtrusive, finding it incredible and somewhat off-putting that this young stranger could see right through to his soul.  

Much like the poetic realism of Jacques Demy, who compiled a string of musicals in the decade of the 1960’s that remain at the pinnacle of the art form, this film has more than a passing similarity to The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (Les Parapluies de Cherbourg) (1964), immersing itself in the energetic spontaneity of the streets from which these characters spring, where their first sparks of love make the audience sense they are made for each other, soul mates, inseparable, perhaps projecting this chemistry onto the troubled relationships of the unseen “others” in their lives, even as they go their separate ways, much like the audience senses the misdirected love in CHERBOURG.  But establishing realism within the world they live in is essential, as from within this carefully defined lack of pretentiousness comes the sincerity of the music, which leads us ever further into the lives of these two young lovers, who mesh together so well in one of the opening scenes in the back of a music store where they basically put a song together for the very first time which is nothing less than revelatory, it’s simply movie magic.  Her soft piano and vocal harmony are so understated, yet so pure, it’s simply heartbreaking hearing the song “Falling Slowly” Falling Slowly - Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova from the movie "Once" (2006) YouTube (6:12) developing onscreen for the very first time:  “I don’t know you/but I want you/all the more for that,” as is her response to his request for lyrics to one of his melodies, where she scampers out into the night in her slippers and pajamas to the local music store where she can play his CD of the recorded music, returning later humming this song under her breath, completely oblivious to the outside world, allowing the audience to share in her joy at hearing her lyrics for the very first time accompanied by her pitch perfect harmonies.  It would be so easy for scenes like this to disintegrate into artificial grandstanding, but they are charmingly contained entirely within the musical structure.  By this time, it’s hard not to sense that we’re experiencing a different kind of film, a tone poem of young love that relishes intricate harmonies and the adrenal rush of waiting for the next chorus. 

Much of this film was born as well in Paul Thomas Anderson’s MAGNOLIA (1999), reflective of the exquisite montage use in that film of the Aimee Mann song “Wise Up” Magnolia SoundTrack-Wise Up YouTube (3:38) spread throughout several characters which adds a hyper-realistic quality to the emotional content of the song.  In ONCE, this mesmerizing quality extends throughout the entire film, making this one of the most subtle musicals in the modern era.  Here the Guy’s reborn love is expressed in flashback images from a projected video of his distant love in London, who is actually in real life the girl friend of the director, but it’s a beautiful collage of mixed emotions, where he longs for the love that he’s actually experiencing again, rekindled by the crazy directness of the Girl, who kindly defers all matters of love, as she has a husband of her own living abroad who hasn’t been particularly helpful.  Instead, she’s visited each day by three burly guys next door who promptly sit on the sofa and watch her TV, the only one in the building, known in the credits as the men watching TV.  Before the Guy leaves for London, he decides to cut a record with the Girl and a few other street musicians, which is basically the end third of the film, watching them pique the interest of the sound engineer who comes to realize he is witnessing a unique recording session filled with undiscovered talent.  The strength of the session is the blending of textures and tones, the unabashed joy and genuine passion that comes from Hansard’s vocals, and the gorgeous melodic refrains, always underscored by the Girl’s talent for harmony.  The personalized intimacy of the characters is perfectly realized in their joining forces and coming together musically.  After immersing themselves in the cramped quarters of a recording session all weekend, there’s a wonderfully sweet release that is simplicity itself, where the music continues over the end credits, but where we know the real story is only getting started, this was just the beginning, a brief moment, once.    


Like John Waters’ HAIRSPRAY (1988), this film was turned into a hit Tony award-winning musical on Broadway in 2012, winning eight Tony awards including Best Musical.

The Songlist from the movie from the 2007 IMDb Message Board, Bowie718 (link lost):

Did anyone else notice the song he played at the VERY beginning of the film? I was totally blown away that he was crooning one of my all-time favorite Van Morrison songs... "And The Healing Has Begun". That song holds special, sentimental value to me... and for the film to open with that... let's just say, there couldn't have been a better way to usher me into instantly liking it. Too bad that didn't wind up on the soundtrack as well (although, it was interrupted by a thief)

1. Say It To Me Now  - The song he sings in the beginning when they meet, from the album Fitzcarraldo by The Frames. - The very emotionally-potent song which the guy is singing, late at night, when the girl first spots him, applauds his music, and then tries to sell him a copy of Issues.

2. All The Way Down - A solo track by Glen Hansard/the guy, a very soft/subdued track from the beginning of the film. It was the scene in his bedroom where he was calling his ex...sitting on his bed playing this song.

3. Falling Slowly - THE song. The song in C that they develop together at the music store, and the one that plays again over the closing credits.

4. If You Want Me - The song (credited, in real life, entirely to Markéta Irglová, which I was surprised by! [she also co-wrote Falling Slowly and Lies with Glen Hansard, and, of course, is the composer of The Hill as well) which the girl is given to write lyrics for, and which she sings while listening to the CD demo while walking home in her sheepy slippers.

5. Broken Hearted Hoover Fixer Sucker Guy - 'Nuff said. (The version on disc is precisely the one in the film, replete with 'Well...' introduction, and laughter at the end.)

6. When Your Mind's Made Up - The song in 5/4 which they record in the studio as their 'track 1, take 1', and which later plays, almost entirely again, over the montage in the car and at the beach after the recordings are complete.

7. Lies - The song the guy writes and then sings over the video recordings of his ex-girlfriend.

8. Gold - The song performed by the group (the soundtrack gives their name as Interference) at the evening roundtable sing, with violin and cello accompaniment. (This is the only song on the soundtrack not credited to either Hansard or Irglová, having been composed by Fergus O'Farrell, who sings the track as well.)

9. The Hill - The girl's solo song, which she demoes in the film for the guy on the piano hidden away in the studio. (This is a different version from that in the film, more 'professional' [i.e., containing a complete ending, rather than that of the girl's crying breakoff in the film], with a few extra lyrics and a short instrumental postlude.)

10. Fallen From The Sky - The other main song performed for the recording sessions, with the girl playing a small electronic keyboard while seated cross-legged on the studio floor. (The CD, incidentally, credits this as an old track performed by The Frames, and Markéta, contrary to the film, does not actually appear on it at all [Glen is the one credited for playing the keyboards, with additional keyboard work by a certain Craig Ward].)

11. Leave - You know, I can't remember precisely where this comes from, although I know it's somewhere in the film, because I remember thinking that the guy's voice sounds almost exactly like early-1970's Cat Stevens/Yusef Islam on this solo vocal and guitar track (with a small touch of bass at the end?, although the instrument is not listed in the liner notes). But more than that, I cannot pin down. Suggestions? (The main vocal hook is the repeated line 'You've said what you have to, now leave'. Wrought and dramatic, particularly towards the end.)

12. Trying To Pull Myself Away - Can't recall this from the film, for the life of me. A full band and then some (a synthy string section, for instance) performance. The best I could think of would be the session from the guy's (suddenly rather spacious) bedroom during their preparation for the recording sessions, but it somehow doesn't seem quite right. Perhaps a song recorded specifically for the soundtrack?

13. Once - A softer duet with Markéta, some percussion and a little extra occasional instrumentation. I imagine this must have been especially for the soundtrack, as I seem to imagine I must have noticed a 'title song' being such somewhere in the film. Plus, all the guy/girl songs seem very memorable. But, then again, I can be very, very unobservant at times. Very unobservant.

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