Once

2006. John Carney

This no-budget Irish film has come out of nowhere to become a surprise hit at the box office this summer and after seeing it myself, I must say that I’m baffled by its success. I’m surprised because it’s shot on HD so poor you can barely see a thing and it features very little dialogue, opting instead to tell most of its story through song, and what little dialogue there is is shrouded in Dublin accents so thick it’s a wonder they didn’t insert subtitles. Above all, it’s a wonderful film that deserves to be seen. So why are audiences all of a sudden looking past these things for this film when countless others come and go with nary a blip on mainstream America’s radar? I can’t see anything commercial about this movie yet now, the soundtrack for Once is threatening to make an appearance on the Billboard charts.

I won’t complain though. The main reason that this film should be seen is that it’s a testament to the power of music. Regardless of whether or not you enjoy the Damien Rice inspired, singer-songwriter material on display throughout the film, it is undeniable that the two characters are at a different place at the end of the story than they were at the beginning and we witness it all happening by way of collaboration and music. The combination of music and images has long been a powerful thing and a manipulative one as well, but never before have I seen a film rely on it so heavily and so exclusively. For example though, I will cry at the end of Rudy every single time I see it, even if I only watch the last ten minutes completely out of context and it’s not because the underdog story of determination hits me close to home. Lord knows, if that was the case I’d be crying at everything from We Are Marshall to Blue Chips. There is something specific about the images in those final sequences added to the Jerry Goldsmith score that flip my tear ducts like a light switch and I just have to surrender to it. It’s completely mechanical. Now, I’m not trying to take anything away from Rudy or Once by bringing this up, because I think both films are great; I’m merely explaining why I think this film works.

It’s essentially like listening to an album for the first time, only the people in the band are hanging out in your room with you while you listen. And in between tracks they pause it and tell you a funny little anecdote or an embarrassing story that endears them to you so that with each new song you hear on the album, you become more and more invested and by the end of it, you can’t believe that somebody you know could make something so genius. It’s all about context and the love story created between actors Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova is pitch perfect. It’s no surprise that they are musicians in real life and had even recorded an album together previously called “The Swell Session”, and their chemistry on screen and cursed bad timing is so potent that you may very well feel inclined to go home and write a song about it. I read that Cillian Murphy was originally cast in the male role but balked at the idea of playing against non-actor Irglova and trying to hit all the notes that Hansard was writing for him. That he dropped out and was begrudgingly replaced by Hansard himself is as much an intervention of the movie gods as Tom Selleck dropping out of Indiana Jones. It simply had to be Hansard.

I recognized myself and my friends in these people and I watched with joy seeing how two characters can become so close so quickly when their passions are so perfectly synergetic. It’s a film that defies happy endings as we know them, but leaves you feeling much better than a fabricated conclusion possibly could have and not only does it dare to let five minute songs play out in their entirety over the soundtrack, it sometimes plays them again all the way through so by the end of the film we can almost sing along with the chorus. It may not appeal to everyone and it’s a potentially alienating choice by the filmmakers, but I for one had surrendered to its charms from the beginning and was humming to myself all the way home.

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One Response to Once

  1. Pingback: The Swell Season « Chad Hartigan

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