- Rated R
- Buy the DVD
All photos © Fox Searchlight
Reviewed by David Medsker
et’s get one common misconception out of the way right up front: “Once” is not a musical. It is a movie about music. Some of the scenes have the kind of unconventional staging that would draw the ‘musical’ comparison, but here is the difference: the songs in a musical tell a story, whereas the songs in “Once,” as brilliant as they are, do not. If you need further proof, look at the track listing of the soundtrack. It’s out of order with the sequencing of the songs in the movie. Name a single musical that would ever do such a thing.
The movie stars Glen Hansard as Guy (not as a man named Guy but as someone who’s just a guy), a struggling musician who works for his father fixing vacuum cleaners by day and busks in the streets of Dublin at night. It is during the performance of one of his songs that he meets Girl (Marketa Irglova), who likes his music and reveals that she is a pianist without a piano. The two go to a music store, where he teaches her another one of his songs and the two have remarkable musical chemistry. This is no meet cute, however; he still hasn’t gotten over his ex-girlfriend, and she is married with a two-year-old daughter. Still, they decide to work together to make a demo of one of Guy’s songs so he can try and make a career in music.
As charming as “Once” is – and it is definitely charming – the overall flow of the movie is rather jarring. Why is the beginning littered with profanity, only to have the foul language disappear almost completely? Did he really ask her to spend the night like that? It was clearly meant to be an awkward scene, but it doesn’t feel honest. The movie’s few laughs come in waves, leaving long periods where the movie is a tad dry. Lastly, there is the physical chemistry between Guy and Girl, which is all over the place (odd, considering they’re dating in real life). Each character goes too fast and too slow with the other, and they’re almost never on the same page. It’s as if the movie itself isn’t sure how these characters really feel about each other.
Good thing, then, that the music within the movie is magnificent. Hansard and Irglova are musicians by trade, and the movie’s three best songs are from an album the two recorded in 2006. The scene where Guy and Girl record the demo with some fellow street musicians is jaw-dropping, closely followed by the scene of Guy watching videos of his ex-girlfriend on his laptop, and penning a heartbreaking song in the process. Irglova’s song “If You Want Me” is done in one monster tracking shot (with a cute surprise halfway through), but that is as close as the movie gets to anything of the ‘musical’ variety. The rest is just people playing songs. And that’s fine, of course, but “Across the Universe” it ain’t.
There is much to admire about “Once,” in a little-movie-that-could kind of way, but it can’t help but get in its own way just when it begins to gain some momentum. You expect a certain woodenness in a movie that features musicians instead of actors, but it is their actions, not their performances, that lack depth. Here’s hoping they get it right next time.