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From the DVD Shelf: Josh Reviews Once (2006)

December 22nd, 2009
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I finally signed up for Netflix, and my first selection was quite a winner: the small Irish film Once.

This is an extraordinarily delightful film, exactly the kind of unique little movie with a voice all its own that I love to be surprised by.  I’d read about the film when it got some acclaim on the festival circuit a few years back, and I remembered the endearing Oscar acceptance speech by it’s two lead actors/musicians.  But I went into the film knowing almost nothing else about it, only to immediately find myself quite taken with the film as the story unfolded.

Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova play the leads, whose names are never given.  He’s a guitar player who plays his music on a street corner in Dublin when not working in his father’s vacuum cleaner repair shop.  His music is brilliant, but he seems stuck in a rut and having trouble getting over a relationship that apparently ended poorly.  She cleans houses and sells roses on the street, and lives in a small apartment with her mother and daughter.  She’s married, but apparently on poor terms with her husband who lives elsewhere.  It also turns out that she is an extraordinary musician herself, but she has little avenue for artistic expression.  She hears Glen Hansard’s character perform on the street one day, and the two strike up a friendship that turns into a musical collaboration.

I am an avowed hater of “chick flicks,” but that doesn’t mean that I don’t enjoy films with deep emotion.  Quite the contrary: I absolutely love being swept away by the emotions of a film with heart.  I just can’t stand films that are filled with manipulative schmaltz, or paint-by-numbers plots that lead to simplistic happy endings.

I can imagine someone reading my above description of the plot and thinking that they know for sure how the story of this man and woman will unfold, but trust me, Once is anything but a typical romantic film.

The film consistently avoids taking the usual narrative path.  (With one tiny exception: The filmmakers did include a scene where a bored technician/producer dismisses their music but then comes around after hearing one song.  After seeing John Michael Higgins absolutely eviscerate that exact type of cliche scene in Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story, I can never again watch that familiar scenario unfold without a laugh.)  OK, but other than that I was extremely pleased to see the film avoid all the usual DRAMATIC with a capital “d” moments and predictable complications that one might expect to see in this type of film.

Which is not to say that the film is not extremely romantic.  I defy you not to be captivated by the connection that gradually builds between these two, formed by the music that they enjoy and then create together.  There is a scene in which she brings him to a music shop where she’s able to use one of their unsold pianos to play.  At her urging, he begins to play her one of his songs on guitar, and he helps her pick up the main chords on piano.  Gradually the two begin to sing together — tentatively at first, then they both find themselves pulled into the song.  It is a magnificent, beautiful sequence, and a stand-out moment in the film that has stuck with me ever since seeing it.

I am not a musician, so I don’t really feel qualified to discuss the music in the film, but I can tell you that this film is FILLED with music — much of it written and performed by Glen and Marketa — and it is absolutely wonderful.  In the special features on the DVD, writer/director Jon Carney talks about how his script for the film was very short, as he wanted the story to be told primarily through music.  He was wildly successful.  One of the special features on the DVD is titled “A Modern Day Musical” and covers the music of the film.  It’s funny — until I got to that featurette, I never thought of the movie as a musical.  But of course it is, in that that so much of the story is told through the music being played and sung by the two main characters.  But the music is so seamlessly integrated into the story, I didn’t even notice!  Once doesn’t feel like any musical I’ve ever seen, in which every few minutes everyone bursts into song.  Because so much of Once is about the struggle to create music, every song we hear over the course of the film feels totally natural and integral to the story.

I should also add that the songs are terrific.  Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova are both phenomenal musicians.  I am also happy to report that, although neither one had ever acted before, they are both fine actors.  In the DVD special features, Mr. Carney talks a lot about the lengths he went to in order to make the two of them comfortable so that they would be able to act in a real, naturalistic way.  Again, he succeeded wildly in his efforts.  It certainly helps that much of the film is pulled from Glen & Marketa’s pre-existing friendship, and their own music, but still one should not dismiss their fine performances.  I don’t think you’d have to look too far to find examples of someone trying to be him or herself on camera and winding up looking stiff and fake.

Once is a terrific film — I’m so happy to have seen it, and I highly recommend it to all of you!

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