Once: The Best Movie No One Saw
By Justin Boyer And Josh Allan
February 1, 2008
An audience favorite that saw only a limited run in theaters, Once is now on DVD. Its indie sensibilities and original music make this film one that our reviewers don't want you to miss.
Rhythm and Lyrics: Justin Boyer
Relevant flames: 4 out of 5
If one were to see a modern day musical, what would it look like? And more importantly, would it work? In the case of Once, winner of the Audience Award at both the Dublin International and Sundance film festivals, the answer is a resounding "yes.” Real world acting, great music and a solid storyline have made this film an audience favorite.
Guy and Girl (as their credits name them) meet in the alleys of Ireland. He busks in the evening and works in a vacuum repair shop by day; she does odd jobs around town such as selling flowers on the street. They form a musical kinship as their lives, and especially their relationships, are in repair.
Flirtation builds as Girl starts to complement, and in some ways complete, Guy’s music. In a way, she is musically to him what Lisa Hannigan was to Damien Rice. Eventually, after layers of their character are revealed to each other, they go towards making a demo of Guy’s music. They spend a weekend in a studio attempting to put rhythm and lyrics of their lamentful choices on tape.
The ending, which is foreshadowed in the title but not appreciated until it takes place, was trying at first. We might be accustomed to a template story and thus, feel initially jaded once originality peaks its head out. But as you sit and listen to the credits, you realize that, yes, that’s the way it needed to end.
Both Guy and Girl have music flowing through their veins in real life. In fact, they wrote just about all the music for the film themselves. Girl is played by Markéta Irglová, a Czech musician and songwriter. She has been into music since she was seven, learning piano and playing tunes by ear. Glen Hansard, Guy, is known as the front man for the popular Irish rock band the Frames. John Carney, former bassist of the Frames, wrote and produced Once. Both Hansard and Irglová have a certain texture to their voice which helps to convey emotion in the film - whether brokenness, anger, or determination.
Even though well written and executed, it takes a moment to adjust to the multiple full-length song scenes. But this is a musical, and it should (and can) be enjoyed as such. Many of these scenes are shot with a hand camera, but it never becomes annoying. Instead, it helps set the mood and strips the would-be pomp. They unfold into what a good indie music video should be.
If you can deal with the abundance of Irish F-bombs, it’s the cleanest R-rated movie you can ask for. It also proves that you can have good story and drama without the Hollywood budget.
Once is a peculiar love story that is focused not on romance, but on the beauty of music and connection even when life is unattractive and confused. For not following convention and for having a kickin’ soundtrack, I give it 4 out of 5 flames.
The Best Film of the Year: Josh Allan
Relevant flames: 5 out of 5
Once follows the story of a guy and a girl, two singer/songwriters played by Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova (who are, incidentally, brilliant musicians and songwriters outside of movieland, too), who meet on the streets of Dublin. Glen is a street performer slash vacuum repairman who’s moved back home to escape his cheating girlfriend in London. Marketa is an immigrant street flower salesgirl with, as chance would have it, a broken vacuum and serious piano skills. The screenplay follows their relationship as they grow a fast friendship and begin to write and record music together.
The film itself is shot with almost documentary-style cinematography (and for only $160,000!), which lends even more gravitas to its homegrown, endearing simplicity. In some ways, we’ve been so conditioned by “typical Hollywood fare” that we can’t help but watch a simple, lovely story like Once and constantly be feeling a sense of impending doom: waiting for somebody to get some kind of instantly fatal disease, hit by a bullet train, or something else ineffably tragic. We wait with a subconscious sense of dread for melodrama that never arrives. The effect is unsettling, but in a profoundly good way; one leaves the theater with a sense of simple contentment. Frankly, Once latches on to the fact that everyday life, when viewed with honesty and sensitivity, contains more than enough tragedy and joy.
Then, of course, there’s the music. I’ve heard this film called a modern-day musical, which fits, but it’s not in the unrealistic “spontaneously break into song” genre. Because our main characters are both songwriters, the songs themselves are flawless vehicles of character development, in a much more organic fashion than in a “typical” musical. The music itself spans the gamut of experience, simultaneously heart wrenching, honest, guttural, haunting, gorgeous, acoustic, raw, poignant, lovely, minor, brooding, compassionate, visual, and breathtaking. During one of his songs Glen even breaks into a heavy-metal rock growl, wailing the most heartfelt F-word you’ve ever heard at the girl who broke his heart -- it may sound crude in print, but on screen it’s absolutely brilliant, with a touch of hilarious. As I told my wife post-viewing, “This music gets in my head, and stays there… and I don’t mind.” (You would do yourself well to mosey over to iTunes and buy the soundtrack.)
I did one of those “2007 Movies In Review” web-polls the other day, and one of the questions asked what “The Best Film Nobody Saw” was. I, of course, answered Once, but judging by the number of votes, it seemed pretty clear to me that I was right; more people definitely need to see this film. If you’re in that category – if you missed its theater run (or it didn’t play in your city) – I’ll leave you with some good news: it’s now out on DVD.
Justin Boyer currently lives in Bellingham, Wash., where he enjoys random creativity, music, learning and his wife, Naomi.
Josh Allan is a writer/producer/musician/artist who lives outside of Los Angeles. His first book, blur: finding jesus in a fuzzy world, is available now from joshAllan.com. Join the conversation about life, spirituality, art, and justice at blog.joshallan.com!