Hidden Gems: Once
By Kyle Lee
September 28, 2018
As a musician, I've never really been able to articulate to people the sort of psychic connection that musicians have with one another when we really click. It's almost like you've found your soul mate, like they understand everything about you, even if you've just met and they don't really know anything about your life. Well, writer/director John Carney's film Once taps into that energy, shows that connection, and at least documents the high that you get from creating music. I wasn't sure if non-musicians would understand the subtext of much of the movie, but most of the people I've talked to over the years do seem to understand, and they love it. Music is universal, but musicals are notoriously un-loved by many people (myself included, with few exceptions). Once, however, is at least two-thirds music, and although not universally loved (because no movie is), it has certainly made a connection with many people.
Glen Hansard is the leader of a hugely influential rock band in Ireland called The Frames. They are one of the great bands of the past couple of decades, but for some reason never made it big in the US. John Carney began as the bass player for The Frames in the early 90's but slowly gravitated away into filmmaking. But when he got an idea to do a movie told mostly through music, he wanted his old bandmate Glen Hansard to write the music for it. The story was a kind of mashup of Carney and Hansard’s lives. It would be about a busker who falls in love with an Eastern European immigrant in Dublin. It was to be a simple tale, carried by Hansard’s music.
Irish star Cillian Murphy was supposed to play the lead. He’d worked with Carney on multiple projects before, and was a musician prior to becoming an actor. He was also coming off of playing main villain The Scarecrow in Batman Begins, but walked away after hearing Hansard’s music, which he wouldn’t be able to sing or do justice to.
Losing a star meant that Carney wouldn't be able to get the kind of funding he would've previously been able to get. Instead of dwelling on this, Carney turned it into a positive. This meant that he could make his movie for basically no money, which meant no interference from a studio. He also re-evaluated his leading man, thinking it might be better to get a great singer who could half act, rather than a great actor who could half sing. He turned to Hansard, who initially refused. Hansard said he was a musician not an actor. After doing a screen test, thankfully Hansard reconsidered and agreed to do the movie. Playing the female lead opposite Hansard would be his good friend and recent musical collaborator Marketa Irglova, a young Czech pianist/singer whom Hansard had met a few years previously. Irglova added her haunting voice and piano to Hansard's songs and they became the backbone of Once.
The movie was ultimately made for very little money (just over $150,000) and looks like it. The visual quality of the film makes it clear that it was shot on cheap cameras, with natural lighting, and shot very quickly. This would be a hindrance to some movies, but actually works here in a sort of underdog way, giving a handmade quality to things as well. These characters are low budget, it makes sense that the movie is as well.
Hansard's character (unnamed, but credited as The Guy) lives in a working class section of Dublin, splitting his time between working in his dad's vacuum repair shop and being a street musician. Irglova's character (The Girl, or "herself" as The Guy tends to refer to her) splits her time between being a maid, and being a street vendor (roses, magazines, whatever). They meet one night as The Guy is playing his heartbreaking songs to no audience. He tells her he plays his own songs at night because people only want to hear things that they already know during the day, and that's how he makes money. She likes his songs, and he soon finds out that she plays piano. She takes him to a music shop where the owner lets her practice for an hour every day at lunch (she doesn't have a piano at home because they're too expensive). This scene has become famous as the two work through a song he’s just started writing called “Falling Slowly”. She adds harmony and piano and the song ended up winning an Oscar.
As a musician every one of the musical sequences rings true, probably because the movie is about musicians, so it's not like the characters are just randomly breaking out into song. You don’t need that suspension of disbelief that comes with a standard Hollywood musical. They're simply playing their songs the way that musicians do.
Before long these two are trying to put a band together, collaborating on music, and eventually recording in a small studio. They also may be falling in love. It’s an odd connection that musicians have sometimes. It’s intimate. You’re sharing something from your soul with someone else who is sharing from their soul. It’s not hard to see why there are so many in-band relationships in the history of pop music. In fact, for a time after this movie came out, Glen and Marketa became a couple. They toured with their band that they called The Swell Season. They even appeared in an episode of The Simpsons as their characters from Once, in an episode where the Simpsons go to Ireland.
There's the possibility here in the movie that their relationship could lead to a romance as well but, despite some of the embarrassingly photoshopped promotional posters showing them holding hands, it doesn't. She’s married and he’s still hung up on his previous girlfriend. And the movie is better off for it, because that would've been the first demand from a studio,” the guy and the girl must fall in love”. Well, actually they still do, but not in a traditional movie sense. There's no doubt in my mind that these two characters love each other possibly more than they'll ever love anyone else, but they don't act on it. Not that they don't want to (her million-watt smile and his puppy dog eyes tell a great untold story), but it just isn't in the cards for them.
Once has more heart and soul poured into it than most movies you'll ever see. It's a heartbreaking romance, a beautiful musical, and a deeply felt portrait of two lonely people finding each other in the world and making some terrific art out of it. It was adapted into a Tony award winning Broadway musical in 2011. And John Carney has gone on to make other music movies, including the terrific Begin Again in 2013 with Keira Knightley and Mark Ruffalo, and 2016’s Sing Street, which I wrote about here in my September column last year. If you haven’t seen this Hidden Gem, please do yourself a favor and seek it out.