Program Notes: Once (2006)
The plot of Once mirrors about half the movie musical boy-meets-girl plots ever written.
Once is like a musical version of Brief Encounter as directed by John Cassavetes. Largely improvised and shot with handheld cameras on Dublin's crowded streets, it's a romantic fairy tale of astonishing delicacy and emotional nuance. This movie is so good I wasn't even bothered by Carney never giving his characters names. They're just Guy and Girl.
We first encounter Guy (Hansard) standing on a street corner playing Van Morrison songs for the spare change tossed into his guitar case. He chases down a young thief who tries to make off with his day's earnings.
But at night, when the streets are almost deserted and nobody is listening, he performs his own compositions – songs like "Say It to Me Now," which he bangs out on a guitar so old it has a huge jagged hole (an apt metaphor for his romantic life).
The song starts in a folky vein, like something from Cat Stevens or Damien Rice, but before it's done Guy is doing the musical version of primal scream therapy, his anguished voice rising through chorus after building chorus.
Enter the Girl (Irglova), who compliments him and observes that he must be singing about a woman who hurt him. Guy admits as much but tries to avoid a conversation on a painful subject. The Girl keeps prodding. She's not malicious – more like a curious child fascinated with the emotions that could create such music.
Girl, we learn, is a Czech immigrant who survives by cleaning houses and selling roses on the street. She lives in a tenement filled with foreigners, sharing an apartment with her mother and young daughter. She has a husband back in the Czech Republic but thinks the marriage was probably a mistake.
When she discovers that Guy works in the vacuum cleaner repair shop run by his father, Girl gets excited. Her Hoover is broken. The next day she shows up at Guy's corner, dragging a blue canister vacuum behind her like a dachshund on a leash.
But it's when Guy learns that Girl, too, is a musician that Once takes off into the stratosphere. She takes him to a music store where, over the lunch hour, she's allowed to practice on a piano. Guy strums his guitar and begins singing his haunting song "Falling Slowly" (which would win the Oscar for best song). She listens to a few bars, then joins in with some supporting piano chords and vocal harmony.
They're falling in love. So are we. It's goose bump time.
The musical numbers in Once were recorded live as our protagonists teach each other songs, practice, and finally spend an all-nighter in a recording studio. The music was written by Hansard, who for the last two decades has been the singer/songwriter/guitarist for the Irish band The Frames. I guarantee that after seeing this movie you'll start looking for his CDs.
Hansard and Irglova could hardly be better, though neither is an actor. Hansard has one film credit – he was one of the musicians in Alan Parker's 1991 film The Commitments (which plays at the library on March 30). Irglova, who was only 17 when Once was made, had never acted.
But their lack of technique or actorish self-awareness perfectly meshes with Carney's caught-on-the-fly approach. With Once you don't feel so much that you're watching a movie as participating in lives.
The red-headed, baby-faced Hansard perfectly captures Guy's uncertainty about both his music and his romantic desirability ... he's just the opposite of a preening, predatory male. And Irglova is delightful, speaking English with a Czech accent that is inadvertently comical. These characters are totally fresh and unexpected.
But there's more up Carney's sleeve than just these two. Once is also very much about Dublin, a city attracting guest workers from all over Europe. It's about the pace of life in the city's streets, about the communities that spring up around shared passions – musicians gathering to drink and sing, immigrant teens crowding onto a couch to watch a televised soccer match from back home.
And it's also about family – Guy's vacuum-fixing dad (Bill Hodnett) has one of the sweetest moments in recent film when he voices his pride in Guy's music.
Once is like that great pop song that, once heard coming over the car radio, burrows into your soul and can't be dislodged. You end up fighting the impulse to roll down the windows and yell, "Listen to this!" to total strangers.
Other films in the series “Luck of the Irish”
Saturdays at 1:30 p.m.:
- March 2: My Left Foot (1989) Rated R
- March 9: Odd Man Out (1949) Not Rated
- March 16: Once (2006) Rated R
- March 23: Bloody Sunday (2002) Rated R
- March 30: The Commitments (1991) Rated R
Admission to these films is free.
About the Author
Robert W. Butler is a lifelong Kansas City area resident, a graduate of Shawnee Mission East High School and the William Allen White School of Journalism at the University of Kansas. For several decades he was the movie editor of the Kansas City Star; he now writes a movie-themed blog at butlerscinemascene.com. He joined the Library's Public Affairs team in 2012.