Once isn't enough
Every once and a while a movie quietly comes along that is so simply touching. These films usually come to the masses from small independent companies; Hollywood usually can't get it together to make something so simple and honest. In fact, most American movies, even when trying to depict a gritty atmosphere, are somewhat glossed over. Once is one such movie. The aesthetics are so quantifiably different from what we are used to stateside. At times it can be jarring because it seems at times like a grainy home video or the unfamiliar cinema verite, but ultimately the medium is the message. The message: Simplicity and love is what ultimately endures.
Directed by John Carney, Once tells the story of an Irish street musician (Glen Hansard) who plays his sad songs alone with one scrappy guitar. He doesn't need much to play his music, just his voice and a well worn instrument. One evening whilst playing, a Czech girl (Marketa Irglova) stops to listen and is immediately awed by his sound. During this pivotal scene the audience melds with the narrative. As we become entranced by his song so does the she, and the pair immediately forms an friendship. The songs they sing are what help bind them together. She too has suffered loss and music is the only way they are able to heal. The audience learns that he has a lost love who's moved to England. Their relationship is displayed through a series of vignettes and home videos. She has an partially estranged husband back in the Czech Republic who we learn about through the presence of her daughter who's come with her to Ireland. What was so striking about their relationship is that throughout the course of the movie their friendship develops into love. But the question that remains throughout is, will it remain Platonic or morph into romantic? That question, and ultimate answer is what keeps the audience riveted throughout.
Neither character is given a name; names make everything too personal when the story is meant to convey a universal message. They bond over their love for and attachment for music. Music is central to the film, as it is the manner in which the narrative moves along. That is the way in which Once becomes a musical. I hesitate calling it a musical because no one spontaneously breaks into song or commences in outlandish dance numbers in the streets of Dublin. Rather, songs are a labor of love, verses which have been toiled over. The music creates a format in which articulation occurs. The songs show real emotion rather than the lavish grandeur of other big budget musicals.
It seems that the ultimate meaning of the movie speaks to the potential power of song. Music is the way the characters relate to life. They use music to express themselves. It also speaks to music as being a universality that everyone can relate to. You don't have to be a professional to write it or sing it, as long as you have something to sing about. The songs themselves are also particularly interesting. Without sounding like a remake of others' music, it feels as though these songs are already part of the international soundtrack. Listening to them sounds like something homey, something familiar, and something that just seems right.