Director: John Carney
By Marilyn Ferdinand
When the hubby and I came out after seeing Once, he insisted we go to the ticket taker and surrender the half of the ticket the theatre needed; we had taken in a double feature (Away from Her, more on that in the next review) and theatre-hopped at the multiplex. The ticket taker offered to dispose of the entire ticket, but we said we like to keep the stubs. “Movie geeks, huh?” “Yes. She’s a film critic,” the hubby offered. “What did you think of it?” the young man asked. “Loved it!” “You going to review it? I guess it doesn’t need another good review. It’s got lots of those,” he offered.
Well, I’m sorry to say, this film needs all the great reviews it can get. Here it was, opening weekend for the film, Saturday of a holiday weekend, and the movie was not sold out, not even close. WAKE UP, PEOPLE! Change your plans, get off your couches, go see Once. Then buy the DVD.
I can’t remember the last time I felt so thoroughly touched, entertained, and surprised by a film, and at the same time enjoyed a theatre filled with wonderfully memorable music from the opening to the closing credits. As has been said by other reviewers of this film, this is a musical for people who don’t like musicals. It is a musical that takes the creating and performing of songs out of the realm of fantasy and makes it a real endeavor by real people who love what they are doing. That is the central love affair of this film, made completely believable by pairing The Frames’ lead singer/guitarist Glen Hansard with classically trained Czech pianist Markéta Irglová and putting it all under the direction of former Frames member John Carney.
Our two main characters are a young man (Hansard) and woman (Irglová), both unnamed, who live in Dublin, Ireland. The opening scene shows the man playing a beat-up guitar on the street for change. He catches a young punk (Darren Healy) out of the corner of his eye standing near the alley. He’s sure the punk means to rip him off. This scene plays out in such a humorous and realistic way that the film grabs you instantaneously. You say to yourself, “I recognize these people.” At the end of the scene, the man says to the punk that he didn’t have to steal the money; if he’d asked, the man would have given it to him. In a less honest film, this conversation would have made the punk regretful and behave better. In this film, the punk asks him for the money and, backed into a corner, the man gives it to him.
The young man meets the young woman one night when he’s out playing to a mainly empty street. She stops, listens, and tells him how much she likes the song he just sang. “Did you write it?” “Yes,” is his answer. “I see you every day on the street, and you never sing songs like this.” People don’t pay for original material, he says, and then complains that she only gave him ten cents for it. “People pay for songs they know.” She asks him if he has a regular job. Yes, he fixes Hoovers—vacuum cleaners—at his father’s shop. Great, she cries. “I have a broken vacuum. If I bring it tomorrow, will you fix it?” Yes, he says, and they say good night.
In the morning, the woman shows up at his spot on the street with her vacuum cleaner. Begging off repairs for lack of tools, the man agrees to accompany the financially struggling woman to a music store where she is allowed to play their pianos. So, vacuum cleaner in tow like a small, blue dog, they’re about to start their adventure. She plays a fragment for the man. He humorously asks if she wrote it. She laughs. “No, Mendelssohn.” Almost apologetically, he offers, “It’s good.” With slightly sarcastic good humor, she says, “Oh yes, it’s good.” She asks him to play with her. Reluctant at first, he pulls out his notebook of lyrics, gives her musical cues for the song, and they feel their way through the magnificent “Falling Slowly.” The title signals the ties that are being forged between the pair.
After a rocky start, prompted by the man’s invitation to the woman to spend the night with him, the relationship progresses. The woman invites the man to her home in a rundown section of Dublin. He is greeted by a little girl and an older woman—the woman’s daughter and mother (Danuse Kretstova). He’s plunged into a world of another language and bare-bones living that an Irish lad like himself might have endured 20 years ago but that is now foreign territory in an Ireland with a robust economy. He stays for dinner, hears a polite “No, thank you” from the mother to her daughter’s plea that she try to speak English, and watches as three Czech men walk in the unlocked front door to watch the only TV set in the building.
The dramatic elements complement the musical scenes in which the growth of the collaboration between the man and the woman is beautifully realized. For example, the man gives the woman a CD of his songs, including one for which he can’t seem to write lyrics, and asks her to write them. She listens on a portable CD player he gives her that quickly runs out of juice. Breaking into her toddler’s piggy bank with a promise (“I’ll pay you back.”), she goes to the nearest store, reloads with fresh batteries, and writes the lyrics in her head as she walks back home as we are treated to the lovely musical interlude, “If You Want Me.” This is such a brilliantly orchestrated scene, true to real life, true to the creative process, and cinematically coherent.
A conventional musical would have the man and woman fall in love by the final frame. This film doesn’t exactly break that convention, but it puts it in its proper place. The man is still in love with a woman he broke up with when he caught her cheating on him. The woman is married—a marriage resulting from her pregnancy—but her husband is back in the Czech Republic. Nonetheless, the perfect harmony of the creative partnership the pair have forged leads to a kind of love affair, one in which they share their lives, private thoughts, and well of their creativity. One scene in which the woman plays a song she wrote for her husband is a genuinely gut-wrenching experience that left me breathless. The pair helps each other break through the blocks that have put their lives in a holding pattern and gives them a chance to pursue what is really important to them.
Most of the songs in the film were written by Irglová and Hansard, who collaborated previously on Hansard’s solo album “The Swell Season,” from which some of the songs on the soundtrack are taken. Many people consider The Frames—not U2—the great Irish band. I don’t know much about music, but I do know that I love these songs in a way I have never loved the music of U2. The fact that they are paired with a wonderfully realized film by a relative rookie director who clearly always loved movies (one of The Frames’ albums in named “Fitzcarraldo,” after the demented masterpiece about opera by Werner Herzog) makes for a perfect experience.
This film would be a fine double-feature with the wonderful Alan Parker film The Commitments, in which Hansard also plays a street musician. Both give rich views of life in Dublin, with Once updating the scene to include immigrants to Ireland. There is so much to recommend this celebration of music and community that you’ll want to watch Once again and again. l