(This review was originally published online by The Film Nerd.)
It’s a makeshift troupe of international rebels that create Once. The actors are untrained and inexperienced; both leads seem to be doing the film a favor rather than relishing in its spotlight. The writer/director used to be a bass player (in the lead actor’s Irish band, The Frames, no less) with only a couple of previous films. The songs seem to be straight off a long lost Damien Rice album floating somewhere between O and 9. It’s an unconventional, untamed, and unconstrained piece of filmmaking that, by the opening credits, blasts its audience with so much singer/songwriter bravado that any person who has ever picked up a guitar and strummed feels instantly a part of this Irish busker.
Clothed in shaggy attire, sprouting a great, red half-beard, and hair unkempt, he’s a broken, emotionally compelled vacuum repairman who is living with his father, mourning his dead mother, pining over his lost love (wait for “Broken Hearted Hoover Fixer Sucker Guy” and subsequent bus song bits) and alternating between playing music on the streets and fixing Hoovers in his dad’s shop. He is also an exceptional musician and lyricist choosing to perform popular songs during the day that passers-by “want to hear” and playing his “not established” songs after nightfall. His only solace remains in the eternal tug-of-war between the pain and peace of these “not established” tunes.
She’s a magazine and flower street saleswoman on the verge of a big job break; cleaning the house of a very wealthy Irish family. She lives with her mother and young daughter in an inner-city apartment. They have the only TV in the building. It’s obvious they are living off of her sparse income. While she remains married, her daughter’s father is still at home in Poland. She’s a shy pianist and songwriter who can’t afford a piano of her own but, rather, often visits the local music store to stretch out her fingers.
It’s a premise that could either stand for quirky individuality or trite trap. Thankfully it’s the former.
According to mindless, modern Hollywood fare it should have failed. Like really, really failed. Lost on straight-to-DVD shelves at Hastings and used record stores all over the states. Trust me, it doesn’t.
What happens with Once is a phenomenon rather rare in film, or any art, that allows some ekes of transcendence to permeate its quaint 85 minutes.
Everything falls into place exactly as needed.
Few films rarely ever get everything right. Once does. If the acting, directing, music, photography, or editing had been performed by anyone else or through any other lens, the film would not be what it is. Because musicians are playing parts both in front of and behind the camera, it’s the most stomach wrenchingly honest piece of film about music in recent years, maybe ever.
The movie is about the music. And the music is really about the movie.
It’s not August Rush. It’s not Mr. Holland’s Opus. It’s not (necessarily) uplifting, motivational, or vainly inspirational, even in a good way. And thank goodness.
These are not actors playing musicians. These are musicians writing and playing music and letting cameras peek in. It’s real. So much so that Glen and Marketa have reported, together and separately, being approached and asked about each other, their relationship, and their “record.” All of which are fictional but are portrayed so brilliantly that people really do think this movie is a documentary.
(Glen and Marketa actually did form a band together after the film, calling themselves The Swell Season and currently have two albums out, both of which are quite good, in addition to the film’s Oscar winning soundtrack.)
Hipsters, romantics, and your v-necked mountain man boyfriend will all rave about Once. And I’m thankful for that. But Once defies even the tags it may procure given its independent film status and emotionally vested soundtrack. Get any ideas of faux-hip negativity out of your head. This movie has none.
It’s a great little piece of filmmaking, knowing when to be funny, serious, sad, and joyful, all at the right moments, supported by a script and plot so subtly nuanced it’s packed with tiny punches that will leave you full of holes before the credits even roll.