One of the surprises of the 2007 Sundance Film Festival was a charming, little Irish film -- a musical, even -- called ONCE. It proved popular enough to pick up the World Audience Award and was acquired by Fox Searchlight for distribution. Then I heard that it was going to be screened as part of the NEW DIRECTORS / NEW FILMS series at the Walter Reade Theater and at the Museum of Modern Art. But it seemed the fates were conspiring against me: the original critics' screening was cancelled as the print was ready. When it was rescheduled, I had a conflict and was unable to see it. So I did the next best thing and purchased a ticket to one of the public screenings, and I'm glad I did. ONCE isn't a perfect film, it begins a little wobbly but once its leading lady makes her entrance, the movie soars and turns into a haunting love story that is set to gorgeous music.
The film is the brainchild of writer-director John Carney. When he was still in his teens, Carney was briefly a member of the Irish band The Frames whose lead singer is Glen Hansard. The filmmaker had asked Hansard to provide the music for his movie, but when the up-and-coming Irish actor cast in the lead became unavailable, Carney asked his pal to step in. Hansard had already made one film -- THE COMMITMENTS (1991) -- and the experience scarred him. But thankfully, he changed his mind and accepted the part.
It doesn't hurt that his leading lady in ONCE, Markéta Irglová, had been a previous collaborator. Hansard had known her musician father and on a visit to the Czech Republic, he and Irglová had worked together on the soundtrack for Jan Hrebejk's film KRASKA V NESNAZICH (BEAUTY IN TROUBLE). Their work together eventually yielded an album, "The Swell Season," and a tour, during which the pair sometimes opened for Damien Rice. Some of those lilting melodies, especially the beautiful and mournful "Falling Slowly" are part of the soundtrack to ONCE.
The film's plot is fairly simple, indeed almost a cliché: essentially it's a sort of love story between an Irish street musician, or busker (Hansard) and the Czech woman (Irglová) who enters his life. It turns out she is also a talented musician and their relationship unfolds and is manifested through the music they make together.
ONCE begins with its unnamed male singer performing on the streets of Dublin. He's aware of a junkie hovering in the area and is certain the drug user will attempt to steal the paltry amount he has made. Sure enough, that's what unfolds and that sequence proves a bit awkward. In the next scene, though, the busker is performing at night -- and singing one of his own songs which attracts the attention of a female street vendor. They chat and it turns out that the street singer has a day job fixing vacuum cleaners with his father. Gradually, the pair develop a relationship: she takes him to a music store where the owner allows her to practice on the pianos in the shop (and where the pair first perform "Falling Slowly"), he invites her home to fix her vacuum and play her some of his music.
The duo agree to collaborate and while it's clear that they are attracted to one another, each has reasons for not engaging in a romance. He has a girlfriend in London -- a woman who hurt him by cheating but whom he still claims to care about -- while she has an estranged husband in the Czech Republic and a toddler daughter living with her and her mother in Dublin.
Together, though, they decide to cut a demo recording and they engage another group of street players to serve a backup band. Securing a loan for the studio time, they set out to make the record. Initially, the engineer is sceptical, but once he hears them perform, he becomes as engaged and interested in them as the audience.
Carney has made a masterful small movie: a real true independent film. He shot much of it guerrilla-style in Ireland and with a minimal budget. That is part of the appeal of the film and the fact that he also doesn't allow his characters to succumb to the typical Hollywood ending -- instead, it's a bittersweet one that is entirely appropriate and very Irish.
Having already collaborated together, Hansard and Irglová have a natural chemistry that aids immensely in the storytelling. They are both attractive and charismatic, and their lovely work together is heartbreaking real and engaging.
ONCE is a small gem of a film that deserves to be seen by a wide audience. It also proves that a terrific film musical can be made. All it takes is imagination and talent.
Rating: A -
From left: Markéta Irglová and Glen Hansard in ONCE.