Once

2007, Movie, R, 88 mins

Review

ONCE
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In an age when "musical" usually means jungle animals singing Elton John songs or the splashy, sequined Hollywood drag-show theatrics of DREAMGIRLS, writer-director John Carney's scrappy, song-driven tale of love among Dublin's street musicians seems downright revolutionary. Focusing strictly on stripped-down performances of great music and the charming chemistry between the two leads, it's a perfectly realized yet unassuming movie that deserves to find a big audience.

When he's not helping his widowed father (Bill Hodnett) at the family-owned vacuum repair shop, our unnamed hero (Glen Hansard, singer/songwriter of the Irish band the Frames) is out on Dublin's streets with his big voice, battered acoustic guitar and repertoire of self-penned songs. Busking for small change and pursuing his dream of becoming a star, he's also trying to forget the long-term girlfriend who recently decamped for London and broke his heart. He gets help in both quarters from a pretty flower seller (the utterly charming Marketa Irglova) from the Czech Republic, recently arrived in Dublin with her young son and her mother (Danuse Ktrestova). Charmed by his music, she tosses the singer a dime and strikes up a conversation. Our hero soon learns that she just happens to have a Hoover in need of fixing and quite a bit of musical talent: Back home, her father was a highly regarded violinist before he committed suicide. When she takes him to the local music shop where the owner lets her practice piano on the floor models, she plays a scrap of Mendelssohn before they launch into a duet of one of his original compositions. The chemistry is immediately obvious, and the musician realizes he's found the perfect partner for his delicate, folk-based pop songs. He fixes her vacuum, she takes him home to meet her son and mum, and together they make arrangements to record a demo, backed by a trio of Thin Lizzy-loving street musicians (this is Dublin, after all). But making music together is one thing; untangling their heartstrings from the complications of their individual pasts is quite another.

Shot with a hand-held video camera using mostly natural lighting, with Hansard's imagistic, hook-heavy songs to move the story forward, Carney's feature is a rough-hewn, thoroughly modern take on an old-fashioned genre: the backstage musical. Its scruffy heart may be deeply romantic, but the film itself is refreshingly free of sappy sentiment. Carney, a former musician who once played bass behind Hansard in the Frames, spent enough time living la vie boheme to understand the edge of desperation that underlies even the grandest dreams and informs each frame of this warm and wistful film. leave a comment --Ken Fox

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