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Once

Reviewed By David Cornelius
Posted 01/14/08 17:25:50

"What beautiful music they make."
5 stars (Awesome)

The busker plays guitar on the streets of Dublin - popular tunes by day, when passersby pay well to hear the established favorites; his own compositions by night, when he’s free to let loose with his heartbreak. He’s worn his guitar to the bone, splintered and broken. He is too poor to replace the instrument, or, more likely, he can’t bring himself to do it. Too much sentimental attachment, perhaps?

Sentimental attachment is at the very core of “Once,” writer/director John Carney’s magnificent tale of music and romance in lower class Ireland. On a mere story level, this may be one of the simplest movies you’ll ever see: boy meets girl, they write and record some songs, the end. Lurking under that simplistic description is a devastating pile of love and loss, joy and wonder. It is the story of two lonely people, the brief connection they share, and their pasts that neither can quite let go. Portraits of pure emotion have rarely been as honest.

Such truthfulness pours out of every note, every lyric in the film’s many songs, which were written and performed by the two stars, Glen Hansard (of the rock band The Frames) and Markéta Irglová. The two are a real-life musical duo, having recorded an album together in 2006; they also opened for Bob Dylan during part of his latest world tour. The songs they create are complete marvels, the sort of music that floors you, leaving a hole in your heart no matter how many times you’ve heard the songs before.

In the context of the film, the impact is even greater. These are ballads of great inner anguish and anger and, at times, hope, and they fit perfectly with these two characters (who go unnamed throughout the film and are simply called “Guy” and “Girl” in the credits). When we meet the Guy, he is nursing a great heartache, his girlfriend of many years having left him; she cheated on him, then moved to London. He still loves her, but also hates her for leaving, as it goes in that post-breakup haze of feelings. He sings of broken communication and increasing disconnect:

I’m scratching at the surface now
And I'm trying hard to work it out
So much has gone misunderstood
This mystery only leads to doubt
And I didn’t understand
When you reached out to take my hand
And if you have something to say
You’d better say it now.

Cause this is what you’ve waited for
Your chance to even up the score
And as these shadows fall on me now
I will somehow.


While singing on his usual street corner, he is approached by the Girl, a Czech immigrant who’s taken by his quietly haunting music. The connection is immediate, although unlike characters in a typical musical, these two are grounded in reality and end up fumbling over their emotions. More importantly, they seem to understand that while they may be falling for each other, maybe they shouldn’t be, as their hearts are too much elsewhere. And yet there is the prospect of healing, as they sing:

I don't know you
But I want you
All the more for that
Words fall through me
And always fool me
And I can't react
And games that never amount
To more than they're meant
Will play themselves out.

Take this sinking boat and point it home
We've still got time
Raise your hopeful voice you have a choice
You've made it now.


They perform this song in the back room of a piano shop, and it’s one of the greatest musical moments you will ever see in a film, not only for the way the song expresses the thoughts of the characters, but on the simple level that here, we’re watching two musicians work their craft. The Guy has written this song and is teaching it to the Girl, who picks up on it very quickly. They then spend the next few minutes engaging in the sheer joy of creation, finely tuning this work and letting the music unite them in ways other plot contrivances never could.

The two form a friendship, bordering on romance but never dare crossing into it. She convinces him to record his songs and helps him land studio time. Again, we see how music touches us all, and how it becomes so very important to us in our own private ways, like in the scene where the two apply for a bank loan to afford the studio. Instead of preparing a speech, the Girl decides to simply play the loan officer a tape of the Guy’s songs; his reaction is intended as punchline of sorts, but it is more than that, biting down to the very core of how music unites us in unexpected ways.

In “Once,” music is both an organic force - watch how an old Czech folk song brings a party to life in one scene - and the result of great creative energy. A lengthy sequence late in the film focuses on the rushed weekend the duo spends recording their songs (with the help of a bar band they hire off the street for backup). Despite their troubles getting focused enough to start, once they get moving, they’re unstoppable, working into the wee hours of the morning. Here, Carney offers a perfect tribute to the creative rush upon which all artists thrive.

Carney is wise enough to keep his film far removed from anything resembling cliché. In another film, the Guy’s father, a gruff vacuum repairman, would be a villain of sorts; instead, he’s a loving, caring soul. (His simple response to finally hearing his son’s recordings is in every way wonderful.) In another film, the recording would present some sort of third-act conflict; here, it is just another weekend in their lives, an important one, yes, but one without forced plot points. And, of course, in another film, the entire point of the movie would be to get the Guy and the Girl together, but not until they’ve split up a couple times and all that other formulaic nonsense; here, the ending is so natural, so pure, so right that it announces with great certainty exactly what these characters deserve.

So do they get together? That would be telling, and the magic of “Once” is in experiencing it for yourself. Carney’s film is a godsend, a hushed, lovely work of raw emotion, held together by unassuming direction and two humble performances that steal your attention in every frame. With delicate care and a modest street musician attitude, Carney has reinvented what a movie musical can be.

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