On a street in Dublin, a young(ish) man (played by Glen Hansard) is busking. The camera zooms in on his face as he raises his voice towards the end of the song, clearly putting his heart and soul into it, even if the world at large isn’t listening. Well, one person is: as the camera retreats, it reveals a pretty Czech girl (Marketa Irglova) standing there. She congratulates him on a great song and performance; he confirms that, yes, it’s one of his own songs. They talk in the halting way that people tend to when they’ve only just met. He works at his father’s vacuum cleaner repair shop. How fortunate: her vacuum cleaner is broken; she’ll bring it over tomorrow.
She does. The two talk some more. He discovers that she plays piano (her father was in an orchestra, and taught her). They go to a music shop, where he teaches her one of his songs, he playing his guitar and singing, she joining in on the piano. They complement each other naturally.
As time progresses, they grow closer. He wants to go to London, to try to make it in the music industry. But first he needs to record a demo, and for that he needs to put together a band. Would she be willing to join in and play piano on the recording? Yes, she would. Life moves on.
I’ve wanted to see this film for quite some time, and I’m so glad to have finally done so, as it’s a delight from beginning to end. Everything about Once flows so naturally: the dialogue feels like real conversation; the plot runs like life (with an added dash of the magic it sometimes brings); the protagonists’ relationship develops in a way that it might do in reality (Hansard and Irglova work so well together that it’s no surprise to discover that they fell in love for real while making the film). The fly-on-the-wall style of camerawork only adds to the sense of authenticity.
But the centrepiece of Once is its music. Hansard and Irglova are both professional musicians, and great musicians they are too: he has a powerful voice, raw and gentle by turns; she is an excellent pianist, and has a lighter vocal style that meshes well with Hansard’s. In keeping with the naturalistic feel of the film, the songs appear only when it would be plausible for them to; but, with just the right amount of artfulness, they have greater clarity than the spoken soundtrack. In fact, the songs often play over the visuals with no other sound, as though the music is more important than anything else. And perhaps it is for these two characters, who come together through a shared love of music, and seem more comfortable playing songs together than talking. Certainly Once is one of the clearest statements of the potential of music to affect lives that I have encountered in a long time.
I was pleased to learn that, not only did Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova write the soundtrack, they have also recorded an album together previously, and that Hansard has a band, called The Frames. I have a lot of music to investigate, then. Here is a clip of Hansard and Irglova performing the Oscar-winning song ‘Falling Slowly‘ from the movie.