May 25, 2007

Movie Review: Once

Time was, the phrase "movie musical" conjured up very specific images of stars like Judy Garland and Gene Kelly arbitrarily breaking into big, sparkling songs. Every once in a while you got flicks like Rent and Hair, featuring songs that sounded more like popular music and less like gimicky, stuffy showtunes, but even then the films worked on a grander, theatrical scale - yes, Rent is based on Jonathan Larson's experiences in boho NYC, but I doubt that struggling AIDS-afflicted artists serenaded each other in cafes. It is a testament to Once, then, that while aptly deemed a "musical," it so completely redefines what it means to use music in movies as to demand a new genre for itself - call it a "lyrical film".

The flick first garnered notice at the 2007 Sundance Film Festival, winning the World Cinema Audience Award for a dramatic film. And, true to the indie nature of the event, Once is a small, intimate, low-budget production. The Dublin-set story centers around an Irish busker (Glen Hansard), known as "Guy" in the credits, who meets Czech immigrant Girl (Marketa Irglova) one evening while performing a self-written song. Her personal questions about the motivation and feelings behind the tune lead to a friendship between the pair and he soon learns that she too is a musician. Too poor to afford her own instrument, she practices piano at a music store - it is here that the two first perform a lovely, delicate duet of a song Guy wrote, crooning the pitch-perfect lyrics "I don't know you/But I want you/All the more for that".

Their quietly developing courtship comes off as genuine - with the awkward propositions, unexpected silences and reliance on neutral vocabulary like "brilliant" that usually mark real relationships. So too is their individually complicated romantic histories - he has an ex who cheated, the basis for the amusing ditty "Broken Hearted Hoover Fixer Sucker Guy," while she is estranged from her husband. As singer-songwriters, the pair express the majority of their emotions through songs, but ones with general thoughts on life and love that don't feel constrained to the movie's plot. Rather, the real-life musical team's melodies and lyrics would be at home on an indie-rock radio station, although placed in the context of the story they serve as invaluable narrative devices.

As the pair grows closer, Guy proposes a collaboration on a demo recording and Girl jumps at the chance. The obligatory montage scene at the studio flows smoothly and easily - the relationship between Guy and Girl, and their dedication to the music-making process, is heart-felt, not staged.

Hansard and Irglova are musicians, not actors - a characteristic which allows their music to shine all the more, but also leads to such tendencies as Hansard gazing at Irglova with big, dewy eyes to express affection/surprise/sadness. Director John Carney is more accomplished at the art of movie-making - important scenes take place in small spaces that enhance the moment's emotional weight, and he adeptly uses a long tracking shot to follow Girl as she walks down a street singing lyrics she wrote to accompany one of Guy's melodies. Carney also makes clever use of Dublin, playing up it's working-class, urbanized feel to emphasize the prosaic environment surrounding the two talented artists, one which works to restrain their creative and ultimately romantic impulses.

Once is a sweet, restrained film, whose charm owes much to the masterful use of modern music to tell this love story. It does not aspire to be more than it is and those who connect deeply to music as a form of expression will find much to enjoy in this film.

Final Score: 90

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