This weekend my brilliant wife and I passed over the various blockbusters and took in Once instead. It’s a small “anti-musical” starring Glen Hansard, the singer-songwriter behind the Frames. I definitely recommend seeking this film out if it’s in your town, or renting it as soon as it’s available. It’s probably the best movie I’ve seen that takes a struggling songwriter as its subject. Unlike biopics like Ray or Night and Day, or fictional travesties like Dreamgirls, the protagonist of Once was not touched by the hand of God and is now merely waiting to be discovered. He’s someone who loves making music and really has no idea how to find real success, beyond “going to London.” There is no payoff to that end, either. The movie climaxes with the recording of a demo over two days in a real studio—no small victory for any would-be songwriter.
The story of Once concerns Hansard, a songwriter in Ireland that works in his father’s vacuum-repair shop part-time and spends the rest of his day busking on street corners and writing, writing, writing. He finds a fan, then a bandmate, in Markéta Irglová, a Czech ex-pat who cleans houses by day and shares an apartment with her mother and daughter. Irglová is a refreshingly direct woman who says what she wants and doesn’t beat around the bush, yet is hardly abrasive. She sees real talent in Hansard’s songs and seems more enamored by his music than by him at first; likewise Hansard finds that Irglová can sing and play piano, and a songwriting relationship blossoms. A tentative romance reveals itself as the story progresses, but both characters have exes in their past, haunting them throughout the film and barring them from ever consummating their feelings.
As a modern-day Brief Encounter the movie is well done, but that’s not where its true strength lies. What sets it apart from other movies (never mind other musicals), is how perfectly it captures the smallest and best pleasures of making music with other people. The very fact that recording a demo is the ultimate high of Once shows just how small the slice of life is. This would have been the first twenty minutes at most of any blockbuster musical. But by honing in on these short weeks of a this musician’s life, Once is able to capture a lot of subtleties that every musician will appreciate. The best is when Irglová leads Hansard to a piano shop, where Hansard quickly teaches her the simple chord progressions to one of his songs and then puts the lyrics in front of her. As he sings the first verse and chorus, she picks up on the song and begins singing harmonies and adds small flourishes on the keys. Hansard gets that look on his face—the one every musician gets when they hear one of their own songs made better for the first time. Later, when they make it to the recording studio with a full band, many of the details are just right. From having an idiot savant bandmember (the drummer) to having a recording engineer decide the music was good enough to put in a lot of extra effort. The all-night session, the “car stereo test,” the sheer enjoyment of hearing your own music on tape. It got all of that right.
Details aside, Once is most definitely a musical, but don’t let that scare you off. I’ve heard it described somewhere as a “video album,” which it nearly is. It is packed with songs, and unless you like the genre of music (fairly sappy, sad brit ballads—you know, like the Frames), you might be annoyed with the movie. The tone of the songs are fairly somber throughout; it doesn’t have the pacing of a typical musical. This didn’t really bother me, though, since those are the songs the guy writes, after all. It felt real. That realness is what many reviews have pointed to when they call Once an “anti-musical.” Unlike other musicals that buck the Hollywood model, such as Umbrellas of Cherbourg, which is wall-to-wall singing, or Dancer in the Dark, which puts the music in the protagonist’s fantasy life, the songs in Once are naturally integrated into the movie in a not-jarring way. The guy’s a singer, so he’s going to sing. And he’s not going to sing one verse and one chorus just to expedite the plot.
Yet I hesitate to join in calling Once a “video album,” because it risks putting the film in a modest little corner. The songs’ naturalistic placement might be what makes the movie palatable to people who don’t normally like musicals, but it’s not what makes it successful as a film. Once could easily be a collection of great Glen Hansard songs interspersed with some excellent attention to detail—and likely that’s all it is to a number of people who see it. But there’s one thing that truly sets it apart from other musicals, and this is what made the film, for me, a great piece of cinema: the lyrics.
Because Hansard and Irglová aren’t so focused on enunciating every lyric, it’s easy not to pay close attention. But in fact they tell a great deal of the movie’s story. Both characters have a significant other with whom they’ve recently parted ways. Ironically, as they are building toward a romance with each other by connecting through their music, every song they sing is about their past. The exes hardly appear in the movie itself, but you get all the back story, all the character, of these two phantoms through the lyrics. Paying attention to the lyrics actually deflates any comparison to Brief Encounter, because you realize that while their chemistry as songwriters is wondrous, their hearts have really never left their previous relationships.
This is where Once really draws a line between itself and standard musicals, where songs are used to explicate a person’s feelings right now. In reality, songs are never about the present. Even a day after writing a brand new song, it’s already a portrait of your previous self. In the immortal words of Jennifer Lopez, “this is me… then.” The power of Once is that it shows how mysteriously two people can connect through music; how much they can tell each other not only through lyrics but through the looks on their faces as they sing or how uncomfortable they are talking about their music when the song is over. Once is the first musical I’ve ever seen where it actually makes sense that the characters express—rather than explicate— their feelings in song.