Once is a pleasure. It’s a new take on the rock musical genre that doesn’t go down the obvious romantic roads. Instead, it delights in the side streets of working-class Dublin.
The Hoover Fixer Sucker Guy
Make no mistake about it. Once is a low budget movie and sometimes it shows from a purely technical level. But, considering it was filmed for one-twentieth of one percent of the budget for Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End (and Once clocks in at one-half the running time), this modest little baby’s loaded with good ol’ Dublin soul. (That’s one of the many neat things about movies. There’s always room for the swashbuckling bravado of a Captain Jack Sparrow and the sweet heartache of a Grafton Street busker.)
A guy (Glen Hansard, the guitarist in the Dublin soul classic, The Commitments) divides his time between playing popular, familiar tunes on Dublin’s streets by day, playing his own far less familiar (and equally less money-generating) music in the evening, and working in his father’s vacuum repair shop. For simplicity’s sake, let’s call him “Guy.” After all, a movie on a tight budget can’t afford a name with a pedigree as illustrious as “Jack Sparrow.”
One evening this girl (Marketa Irglova, making one of the most engaging film acting debuts in ages) confronts the busker. She’s a direct girl with direct questions; she’s curious about Guy’s choice of daytime tunes (the more familiar music makes people happy and therefore they find it easier to part with their change). She prefers the darker, personal tunes he plays after dusk and she continues to grill him about what he does to support himself while away from the guitar. For simplicity’s sake, we’ll call her “Girl.”
Lucky for Guy, Girl also happens to own a busted Hoover.
Where’s The Guinness?
It’s not too terribly surprising to say Once feels a wee bit like The Commitments. Once has the same kind of Irish spirit, particularly when Guy and Girl go hunting for a loan in order to afford a weekend at a recording studio. The loan officer, after hearing their music and tale of talent and ambition, pulls out his own guitar and strums away — energetically and yet very badly.
With financing secured, the duo put together a band of buskers. Dedicated followers of Thin Lizzy, the bulk of the band is found playing by Dublin’s Philip Lynott statue.
As with The Commitments, Once features real musicians and, unlike the former’s deference to cover songs, this time many of the songs performed are actually written by Hansard and Irglova. Hansard is the lead singer for The Frames (director John Carney was the band’s original bassist) and Irglova is a musician in her own right; Hansard and Irglova released an album together last year entitled The Swell Season.
This intimate connection with and passion for music between the film’s collaborators generates a very palpable sense of warmth. When Guy and Girl start playing together at a music shop, as much as it sounds like a cliché, they make beautiful music together — literally.
Plant A Thought And Watch It Grow
As director Carney explained to David Browne in a recent New York Times interview, the title Once refers to the Irishmen and women he would encounter in bars: “They say, ‘Once I do this, then it’ll be great.’ But they never do it. It’s a great Irish tradition of vacillating.”
And therein lies the rub. All is not as straightforward as it might seem.
Guy has an ex-girlfriend living in Chiswick and she’s never far from his mind. He claims to be over her, but is he really? Flashbacks as he plays his own songs, pierced with memories of her, show the good times, the innocent times, they had together.
As for Girl, she’s the mother of a little girl and her husband is still in the Czech Republic.
Guy talks about moving to London to reunite with his girlfriend and score a record deal. Girl talks about her somewhat estranged husband possibly, finally, moving to Dublin.
And yet the two of them, Guy and Girl, have their own special chemistry.
How their relationship plays out, most notably through the music they make together, is at the very heart of Once. It’s a simple story as familiar as Guy’s well-worn acoustic guitar. And it’s the talent both onscreen and behind the camera that makes it feel so genuine and fresh.