If someone told me that a musical would be tearing through the list of my favorite films, I would have punched that person in the face. But an Irish indie I wasn’t even aware of till last week did it.
The lives of two souls who happen to be musicians and emotional train-wrecks intertwine in Dublin. The guy plays to earn euros in the morning and money at night, the girl sells flowers and lives with her daughter and mother. She tells him her vacuum cleaner needs help and he knows how to fix it. These are actual musicians who play the part; their names never mentioned in the whole film. They meet through a song. And we begin our journey into their flawed but fabulous lives.
The fact that Once feels so natural inspires no surprise, for both Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglovà sing as if their lives depend on it. There is no acting here. There is a street musician and there is a Czech immigrant. There is no other way I would want to put it because classifying this film into anything would be a phenomenal waste of time. Once is a sad exposition of lives marred by other lives – two (and then some more) bewitchingly talented people cradling their hurt and getting on through music. It is relentless in its beauty, the songs are petals graced by voices like dew drops; the narrative basking in the twinkly warmth of the radiance that illuminates the screen when they sing.
This is a low-budget musical, so their week in Dublin writing, rehearsing, composing and living their songs is shot in a raw and an unadorned manner. Once is disarmingly free of any artifice or polish and this makes it all the more admirable. There is a scene where the girl walks towards her home, listening and singing to a tune with lyrics that she wrote. It made me gape at the screen in wonder, mainly because I’ve never seen anything that felt this true before. As a devotee of rock-and-roll, this was something to be proud of and be floored by. The film is thoroughly devoid of any ham-and-cheese clichés that plague romances or musicals: a montage of unpretentious 86 minutes that will move you to the core of your being. Once has, without a doubt, set a new standard for the modern musical.
To be able to capture life in a way that says something about life itself is the gift that writer-director John Carney uses to seal the impact of his scenes. We scarcely realize that there is a crew or a camera circling the cast. Everything, especially the music, flows out like a river on its natural course; fierce and then calm, brimming and deep. I will refrain from writing about any particular scene or moment because it is the totality of Once that, well, rocks. The music arises out of souls who are at war with themselves, caught in a fleeting moment out of eternity with nowhere else to be. And so they sing.
A film then, about what it is to be alive and in love. Romantic without being romantic and with a soundtrack to die for, this is a stunning piece of cinema to cherish forever. Once is soul-stirring, joyous filmmaking. Hats off.