A movie about the exhilaration of creative catharsis, “Once” is a film of limited production values, a low-quality picture and the occasional flubbed camera move. But it makes up for these flaws with sharp observations, compelling characters and a great collection of music.
The realist musical stars Glen Hansard of the Irish band The Frames and Czech singer Markéta Irglová as two star-crossed musicians who click for a week and record some songs together. This isn’t a rise-to-fame story, and it’s only a romance in the round about way that all stories like this are romances. It’s simply about a collaboration coming to life.
Hansard plays a busker with a beat-up acoustic guitar who sings on the streets of Dublin for change when he’s not working at his dad’s vacuum repair shop. Irglová, an poor immigrant who sells various magazines and knickknacks on the street, runs into him at night as he passionately reaches the crescendo of one of his songs. She notices that it isn’t one of the usual established hits he plays during the day. That’s because the people who actually give him money don’t want to hear originals, he tells her.
The next day, when she brings him her broken vacuum, she takes him to the music store where they let her play piano and they work out one of his songs together. At this point, the muse has inspired him and greatness can be sensed in the air.
The film is decidedly not stylized in the typical musical fashion. Even the more fantastical scenes—like when Irglová walks down the street in her pajamas at night, wearing headphones and singing the lyrics she wrote to one of Hansard’s tunes—are really happening in the true-to-life world, much to the puzzlement of some of the other people standing around. When Hansard decides to relate the story of his failed relationship to Irglová in song while on a bus, he gets a little too loud and has to apologize to a fellow passenger.
John Carney’s direction is unassuming and without a hint of pretension, and his short screenplay lets the music do a lot of the talking. While most backstage musicals are about the search for success, this one is about the search for a glorious musical moment that, far too often, people only get to experience once.