The tiny-budget Irish musical Once became a surprise hit over the summer, grossing $9 million and making stars out of its main actors, Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova. A romance that clocks in at 83 minutes, it’s a story so simple that its main characters don’t even have names; they are referred to in the credits as “The Guy” and “The Girl.” Still, Once features charm and talent to spare, and with nine wonderful original songs, a killer soundtrack to boot.
Glen Hansard plays an impoverished musician who works in his father’s vacuum repair shop and performs cover songs on the street on the side. Only at night does he dare to play his own music, and that’s when the Girl (Marketa Irglova) approaches him. She tells him she likes the original songs better and asks if she can bring in her vacuum the next day for him to repair. When she actually shows up the next day he takes her to lunch and to the repair shop. When she takes him to the music shop where she practices piano each day, they sit down for an impromptu song, and that’s where the movie truly begins.
The Guy is captivated by the girl but she’s got a daughter and a husband back in the Czech Republic. That doesn’t mean she can deny their mutual attraction, though, and as they become bigger parts of each other’s lives over a series of days, their musical collobaration marks their growing connection. All the sentiments that would normally be said out loud-- her feelings about her husband, his relationship with the ex-girlfriend he still loves, and yes, new love-- all come out in the delicate, beautiful songs that Hansard and Irglova record together. The harmony of their two voices tell the whole story.
The Guy puts together a band, the Girl included, and the two-night recording session results in a high that a marathon of musical collaboration. That’s the beauty of Once: the story is so simple that all the feelings are universal. Even if you’ve never been to Ireland, or have never played a musical note, you know everything these characters are feeling.
The romance is doomed from the beginning, we know that, but through their friendship both the Guy and the Girl are able to move on with their lives in a way they couldn’t before. It sounds hokey-- in fact, much of this probably sounds hokey-- but I promise it’s not. Once hits only genuine notes-- pun intended-- and never overplays its hand with sweeping romantic shots (they couldn’t afford it) or orchestral scores. Once is a simple, elegant musical for people who don’t like musicals. It’s a musical for anyone who has a heart.
Worth noting: The R rating is for nothing but a few choice f-words. There is absolutely no sex, not even any kissing, and not a smidge of violence. Any kid who's seen a PG-13 movie can handle it.
Another beauty of Once is that it was essentially thrown together by a group of friends. Director John Carney and Hansard were in a popular Irish band called The Frames, and Hansard and Irglova knew each other as musicians before working on the film (in a sweet coda, the two began dating in real life after filming completed). This makes the behind-the-scenes footage in the two making-of documentaries, “Making of a Modern Movie Musical” and “More Guy, More Girl,” especially insightful. You see Carney and the actors discussing what their lines should be in the upcoming scenes-- a number of the scenes were at least partially improvised--and how they got away with shooting on packed Dublin streets. In one scene, for example, Irglova stood at her mark out of camera range, and Carney called her on her cell phone to let her know filming has started. Now that’s how you make a low-budget movie.
The commentary also features Carney, Hansard and Irglova, who reveal all sorts of information about their shooting locations and the people with bit parts. In one dinner scene halfway through the film, all the filmmakers just invited their friends over to be in the background; Carney’s mom is seen singing at the dinner table, and the band Hansard sings an impromptu post-dinner ballad with are all friends of Carney’s. Carney’s insightful commentary belies the ideas that the movie is just a miracle of luck, and no one behind it really knew what they were doing; he has a clear idea of what all the directorial choices meant, and it’s a pleasure to hear him explain them, from choosing the title Once to using super-wide frames to capture the action. Irglova and Hansard, on the other hand, reveal that they’re really not actors. Everyone gets uncomfortable when they come to the scene in which the Guy awkwardly asks the Girl to stay the night and gets rebuffed. Though their performances here are wonderful, the two are probably best left sticking to music.
There’s also a musical commentary featuring the three, which just goes through each of the musical numbers. Surprisingly they have something new to say each time, though the commentary rarely lasts the length of the song. All three reveal how much attention they’ve paid to fan response-- Irglova talks about conversations she’s had with fans, and Hansard mentions a YouTube cover of their song “Falling Slowly.” It’s really refreshing to find movie stars that care deeply about their fans.
The rest of the special features are pretty bare-- there’s one “Webisode,” an animated take on the song “Broken Hearted Hoover Fixer Sucker Guy” that was available on Fox Searchlight’s website. It’s charming but oh-too-short. You can also put the DVD in a computer to download the song “Falling Slowly,” though honestly, that’s just going to make you want to download the whole soundtrack. It’s a shame there’s not a DVD-soundtrack package deal, since it’s almost not worth having one without the other. And of course, on a movie with such a low budget, you’re not going to have deleted scenes. You could spend time wishing for what else could have been on the Once DVD-- sheet music for the songs, music videos, etc.-- but the commentaries and documentaries are so rich with information, it’s really all you need.
Once is a small movie with a big appeal that grows on you every time you see it; it’s worth it to own the DVD for that alone, but with the commentaries you feel that you get to know the actors even more, giving the film all the more appeal. You can tell I fell hard for this one, but I promise I’m not alone. Go to iTunes, listen to 30 seconds of “Falling Slowly” and tell me you’re not intrigued. Then go get this DVD and enjoy every minute of this delight.