In a nutshell, Bored & Dangerous says: “I never for a second questioned the earnestness or truth behind the songs.”
“Fantastic stuff. That’ll be a hit, no question.”
Twice in my life, I’ve seen a movie in the cinema and had to go buy the soundtrack the very next day. The first time was after seeing Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill Vol. 1. Overseen by the Wu-Tang Clan’s RZA, the music in that movie was a visceral gut punch like nothing I had heard before. These days, a few of those songs have remained on my phone and iPod, and they get listened to in full maybe half the time they pop up on random. But that’s about it. The other movie that made me immediately buy its soundtrack resulted in an entire album that has stayed on regular rotation in the almost decade since. Knowing that the music has held up so well, I had high hopes about the movie itself doing the same, which is why I re-watched Once.
He may spend his days playing crowd pleasing hits for spare change in a Dublin pedestrian mall, but a local busker (credited only as ‘Guy’ and played by Glen Hansard) comes alive at night when he plays his original, heartfelt music to no one. No one except a pretty Czech immigrant (credited only as ‘Girl’ and played Marketa Irglova). After being his appreciative audience of one, the two strike up a conversation that leads to their mutual love of music. An accomplished pianist and singer herself, they collaborate on one of the guy’s songs and all goes well… Until he makes a move. With a young child in Dublin and a complicated relationship with the father still in the Czech Republic, romance is not something she’s looking for.
But the collaboration is enough to convince the guy that his music is something worth pursuing more seriously. As is his former girlfriend who broke his heart several years earlier before moving to London. After an awkward reconciliation with the girl, they platonically agree to record an album of the guy’s songs together, recruiting some local street musicians as the backing band.
Glen Hansard was already a successful musician before Once, but about five minutes after the move was released, he was catapulted to a whole new level of respected, Academy Award winning song writer and world famous, constantly touring and recording troubadour. And it’s his music, along with the unbelievable music making chemistry between Hansard and Irglova that makes Once so amazing. The plot is nothing you haven’t seen plenty of times before, but the songs and the performance of those songs that form its core make it one of the most believable and true “love” stories I’ve ever seen.
Of the two central performances, both were musicians with almost no acting experience. Behind the camera, writer and director John Carney was a former musician making his first movie. And I truly believe all of that lack of cinematic experience is what makes Once such a unique and affective movie. Movies about great artists almost always struggle to make you believe in the greatness of the art they’re producing. They usually resort to telling us over and over how amazing their characters’ work is, because they can never effectively show it. Here, Carney built his movie around legitimately amazing music, written and performed by true musical artists. So I never for a second questioned the earnestness or truth behind the songs.
Since Once, Carney has gone on to make Begin Again, which I liked, and the recently released Sing Street, which looks like uplifting, but possibly disposable fluff. All three are about characters finding growth and fulfilment through music. But I’ll be surprised if anyone, Carney or otherwise, is ever able to make another one that seems as raw and real as Once.