Saturday, January 09, 2010

Once - A Movie Review

I normally don't do movie reviews; I have friends here and there on the Internet who do a far better job at that than I do. But I stumbled across this DVD in my local public library, found the blurb on the back cover interesting, took it home, put it in the DVD player... and entered heaven! I couldn't help but let everybody else know about this, too.

This is such an intimate little movie, shot with one camera (often hand-held) in the streets of Dublin and in the homes of the people involved in the movie, and shot in available light rather than spend precious budget money on lighting systems. And except in maybe two cases, all the actors weren't actors at all, but just everyday people. It was an extended (85 minutes) home movie. And it works brilliantly!

Basically, Once (filmed in 2006 and released in 2007) is about the lives of musicians on the "starving artist" level, only able to practice their art on a limited basis in order to keep a roof over their heads and food in their stomachs. The focus is on the Guy (played by Glen Hansard), a guitarist singer-songwriter who busks on the streets of Dublin when not working for his father in a vacuum-cleaner repair business, and the Girl, played by Markéta Irglová, a Czech immigrant with a small daughter who plays piano and sings but makes ends meet by selling magazines and flowers on the street. The Guy is good but has no confidence in his talent. It takes the Girl to recognize that talent and do her best to bring it out. They strike up a friendship and begin writing songs together, and eventually she helps him get studio time to put together a demo disc (backed by a street band who seem to make their living playing Thin Lizzie covers) to take to London in hopes of finally going professional.

Reading that, you might suspect a love story. Well, not really. The Guy has an ex-girlfriend he really wants to get back together with who lives in London. The Girl is married with a small daughter, and her husband still lives in the Czech Republic. Both couples are estranged, but the Guy and the Girl are intent on putting things back together. The thing is, when they get into the music, they're absolute magic together; their voices blend with no effort at all, and their songwriting collaborations are exquisite. So naturally an attraction builds and almost bursts into bloom several times. But in the end, the Guy goes to London to further his musical career, and the Girl finally convinces her husband to come to Dublin. But they've given each other such wondrous gifts: the Girl basically finances the studio session by haggling with the studio owner and playing one of their livingroom tapes for the bank loan officer to get the money to pay for the studio time; and before leaving for London the Guy buys a piano for the Girl (she has to practice on the instruments in a music shop because she has no piano at home) and has it delivered to her flat. They may not become romantically involved, but they leave a lasting impression on each others' lives. In the end, you come away from this movie with a deep sigh that's half sadness for what might have been and half contentment for a reasonably happy ending.

What really makes this movie work as well as it does is the casting. While Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová aren't actors, they are working, professional musicians who had already been working together as songwriters for a couple of years before the movie was made. And in fact it was the musical connection that pretty much created the movie in the first place. Hansard has a band called The Frames, and John Carney, the movie's director and screenwriter, had played bass in the band for a while. It was his intimacy with the world of struggling musicians that spurred him to make the movie, and naturally he recruited people he knew from that world to be a part of it. It's the chemistry between Glen and Markéta that makes this movie the magical thing that it is, both in their relationship and in the music they create together (yes, they wrote the songs performed in the movie). And that relationship continues. For a brief time during and after the making of the movie they became romantically involved, but that didn't work. They are still very close friends, and these days they tour as The Swell Season (visit their website here).

For such a small, cheap (it was shot for €130,000, about US $160,000) movie starring two non-actors, this movie made quite a splash when it came out in 2007. It made much more money than anyone had a right to expect, and garnered great reviews from just about all the major reviewers (see the "Critical Reaction" section in the movie's Wikipedia article). It appeared at the 2007 Sundance Film Festival. The soundtrack got two Grammy nominations, the movie itself won the 2008 Independent Spirit Award for best foreign film, and the song "Falling Slowly" won the 2007 Oscar for best original song. And accolade of accolades, Steven Spielberg was quoted as saying: "A little movie called Once gave me enough inspiration to last the rest of the year." That's major magic for a little movie that only took 17 days to shoot on a budget of $160,000!

Get this movie! You can visit the movie's official Fox Searchlight (the movie's distributor) website. You can get the movie itself as an mp4 digital download from iTunes, as well as the soundtrack album. Or you can buy the DVD directly from Fox (at a decent discount, at the moment). I suggest buying the DVD rather than the digital download; the DVD has some great background and behind-the-scenes documentaries that are really worth watching.

So what's all the fuss all about? Here are some examples. First, take a look at the trailer:

Then there's this video of the Oscar-winning song, "Falling Slowly". This scene is especially poignant because it's the first time Guy and Girl play together. They've only recently met, and he's just found out that she's a musician, too. Girl takes him to the piano store where they let her play on the instruments there, and he drags out the lyrics to the song and gives her the basics of the chord progressions in the different segments of the song. And when they launch into the thing, pure magic happens. I couldn't find a video of that scene in the movie (at least, one that worked), but this video is a live in concert version from their 2007 tour as The Swell Season. I like this because it captures the feel of the movie scene quite well.

There were some great scenes in the recording studio. There's an absolutely gorgeous scene with the song "Fallen from the Sky", which favors a drum machine beat and chords on a cheap Casio keyboard that's delightful, and the scene includes a visit by Girl's mother and her daughter; it's cute and playful as all get-out. Unfortunately the clip doesn't exist on YouTube. But this scene, the recording of the first song, "When Your Mind's Made Up", has great music as well as the reaction of the recording engineer Eamon, who goes into this expecting terrible schlock from a bunch of rank amateurs, only to discover that these guys are good. The reactions on his face are priceless!

And that's my review of the movie that has just become my all-time favorite. Find yourself a copy and enjoy!

Review © 2010 by A. Roy Hilbinger


  1. Okay, I'm reading along, enjoying your rare movie review, until I get down to the sixth paragraph. Then let out a little shriek. Zoro made me burst out laughing!!

    (I'm adding Once to my Netflix queue.)

  2. It's really a good movie. I was glad that they never got around to "hanky-panky," as she put it: I much preferred watching friendship and the creative process inspire each other.

  3. i remember seeing this reviewed on tv...thanks for the reminder.

  4. L says this is REALLY good; I like the fact that libraries are lending a variety of media.

  5. I don't know. Sounds like a damn fine review to me. Ditto for the film.

  6. Wow! Nice review - and I thank you for bringing it to my attention. I checked my Netflix queue and discovered it was already there - but in position 147 - so I bumped it to the top and should soon be enjoying it.

  7. I loved, loved, loved this movie.

    Classiest move of an Oscar host I've seen in years - when Jon Stewart told the gal to please come back out and finish her acceptance speech, after they cut off her mike to go to commercial...

  8. .....ohhh...this looks good. Thanks for bringing it to our attention!

  9. This was a little shining gem of a movie. Thanks for bringing it to mind, Roy.

  10. I loved this movie! I have so many friends that will not even consider watching foreign or independent films and I cannot understand it.