It's amazing how easy it is to overlook a movie's flaws when it's strengths are so strong. Once is far from a perfect movie. It sort of wants to be Before Sunrise/Sunset for singer/songwriters, but its characters pale before Richard Linklater's for depth. The acting isn't particularly good, the script isn't particularly memorable, and the story isn't particularly engrossing. But Once has an ace up its sleeve, the divine music by its stars, Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova. Their songs, and their soulful performances of them obliterate whatever weaknesses the movie has. You get swept away by them and it's only later, when you look back upon the movie that you realize that you got so completely sucked in by the film that you didn't notice it's problems.
Hansard plays an unnamed Irish busker. By day, he works in his father's shop repairing vacuums. By night, he pours his heart and soul into fiery performances on a Dublin street corner to an audience of none. Director John Carney establishes Hansard's skill and his dilemma beautifully; over the opening credits, Hansard sings the first of many unforgettable songs in the film, with a voice that can give you goosebumps. The frame is very wide on the musician. The street is empty. We can see that no one notices the magic that is taking place at this anonymous intersection. As Hansard's delivery draws us in, Carney pushes in closer and closer on his face. As the song ends, he pulls back out and suddenly there is one person who is listening. It's Irglova. Without saying a word, we already like her. She's the only one who gets it: this guy is an undiscovered genius.
She doesn't have a name either, at least that we learn. She's Czech and she's got some problem with her vacuum she says she'd like him take a look at, but it's clear she's watching Hansard for the same reason we are. The next day she returns, Hoover in hand, and Hansard dismisses her as an annoyance until he learns that she's a musician too. She takes him to a music store where she plays him something on piano, and then they play one of his songs together, a number called "Falling Slowly."
Hansard lays out the chord progression and some of the notes, and then they begin to play, he on his guitar, she on the piano. She's tentative at first, but then she gets the changes and the words and begins to sing with him adding a beautiful harmony line to his lead vocal. Carney shoots the scene simply, one angle for each of the performers, and lets the actors' talent and musical chemistry carry them. It would appear that he basically just got out of their way and let them do their thing. The effect is mesmerizing, so simple and yet one of the single most captivating scenes in recent memory.
Most of the rest of the movie continues in this manner, low-key but very beautiful scenes where Irglova and Hansard play music together and flirt with starting a relationship (there are various obstacles to their love that I will not spoil here). There's not too much more to the conflicts than will-they-won't-they (as well as will-they-won't they play "Falling Slowly" again, cause I really want them to). It's mostly just pretty folky pop songs with beautiful harmony.
In fact, the stories behind the making of Once might just be more interesting than the film itself. Hansard and Irglova, for instance, fell in love after making the movie, and are now a couple as well as a musical combo. They're made an album and they're touring; last week they made stops on several late night shows. Here's the YouTube clip of them on The Tonight Show doing the song I love so much:
It's still a great song, and it's not a bad performance. But it doesn't have the same heat, the same exhilarating release of energy as the version in Once. There's something special that Carney captured in that particular rendition of the song that the two can't quite approach here, despite the fact that the two are now very much in love. If Carney did indeed just get out of their way, how come his version is so vastly superior to The Tonight Show's? It may be that despite the flaws and the seeming simple pleasures there is a great deal more going on beneath the surface of Once than it might have first appeared.