Tuesday, January 27, 2009

"Once" review

Originally posted June 2, 2007

My mother insisted that we see this movie. She said it was about music and Dublin, and that was all the coaxing i needed to stumble out of bed on this heavy wet Saturday.

"Once" is a simple film, filled with the organic romantic folk-rock of Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová. The two musicians, who also happen to portray the two main characters in the movie, collaborate to create soul-full songs with love-struck lyrics while director John Carney employs them perfectly in a heart-felt tale that even managed to avoid the traditional, painfully self-aware, corny sensationalism inherent in most musicals.
In the press packet .pdf, Carney describes Hansard's songwriting style, saying he is "a good lyricist because his songs are never literal...They're quite vague, in a very good way that good songs are...very open to interpretation, they're like a good poem, which is meaningless one day and then suddenly has real meaning when you've been there, or when you've had that experience."
The songs provide the vague framework for the various love situations strewn between "the guy" and "the girl" (names are never mentioned). Hansard, "the guy", has rather recently lost his girlfriend to other temptations she found in London. Markéta, "the girl", is a Czech immigrant living in Dublin with her non-English speaking mother and young daughter, having left her husband behind in the Republic. With that in mind, the two artists orbit around and towards each other, drawn ever closer by their musical center of gravity.
Hansard plays the guitar and sings with pleasing versatility. His original songs tend to start soft, building in intensity until a tingling plateau explodes in honest emotion, complete with slammed strumming and tonal yells. I'm thinking specifically of the song, "When Your Mind's Made Up" in this case.
Ms. Markéta, who is still only 18 years old, adds crucial depth with instinctive piano playing, and her smooth vocal range beautifully complements Hansard's gritty nature. Her voice is somehow soft and lovely and loud and powerful all at once. She is usually singing the harmony in support of Hansard, but her subtle grace is impossible to miss. This was her first foray into acting, and her inexperience is more than compensated for by her natural energy.
The film is shot from a grainy, camcorder-style perspective. The low-budget feel creates an intimacy, a low-key atmosphere in which the music takes over much of the story-telling duties.
Discussing how the film took shape, Carney says, "I'd write a scene, or come up with a character note based on a song. Then, occasionally, it would be the opposite situation where I would ask Glen (Hansard) to write, not a tailor-made song, but I would give him some ideas about a scene and he would come back to me with a song. A lot of the material that Glen brought in, he had already written. They're not tailor-made songs for the film. Nor is the film tailor-made around a bunch of songs; but they meet somewhere in the middle, and I like that idea."
In the end, "Once" succeeds as a modern-day musical love story. The characters are real and likeable and the music soars throughout. The aural and visual beauty of bare-bones artistry is brought to life in this simple and pleasing film.

Glen Hansard was born in Dublin in 1970. He is the lead singer, guitarist and founding member of the Irish rock group The Frames. Their latest album is 2006's, "The Cost", and they are currently touring Europe and the US. Hansard recently released his first solo album (with Markéta Irglová), "The Swell Season".

Markéta Irglová was born in Monravia in 1988, and currently resides in Prague in the Czech Republic. She is a multi-instrumentalist and vocalist who began playing music at the age of 7. "The Swell Season" is her first release.

Director John Carney (On The Edge, Bachelors Walk) was the original bass player in Hansard's group, The Frames.


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