The low-budget Irish musical Once turned the Swell Season, the duo of Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova, into overnight stars able to perform their yearning, folk-tinged songs around the globe. This documentary captures the madness around them and gives us a warts-and-all portrait of what this celebrity status does to them, both individually and as a romantic couple.
There is little doubt that Glen Hansard has screen presence. His busking at the beginning of Once draws you into that movie, and this documentary proves he’s just as compelling when he’s not performing. He’s a man who seems forever dissatisfied at some basic emotional level. The most-revealing and involving sequence in the film involves Hansard sitting with his mother at her kitchen table and expressing embarrassment that she brags about his accomplishments to everyone in the neighborhood; he’s still uncomfortable with his fame and how it might affect his art. When he expresses this, his mother takes it as an insult, and then he’s upset with himself for belittling her joy. It’s a truthful moment that’s as heartbreaking and raw as the best of the Swell Season’s songs.
While Irglova seems to calm Hansard’s ceaseless quest for meaning, she doesn’t enjoy the expectations thrust upon her at every stop on the tour. She’s not naturally built to schmooze backstage, a skill that Hansard has in abundance. He talks about being a working musician who is so thankful for each and every person who comes to see them perform, while she’s pointedly uncomfortable posing for pictures with people. This little difference opens the door for bigger conflicts that threaten to tear the two apart personally, if not creatively.
And while this is going on, the filmmakers serve up footage of the band performing in various locations, and as their personal torment grows more apparent, we can see and hear how it feeds their concerts. It’s not an exorcism -- the music doesn’t make their pain go away -- but it gives them an outlet to express it in ways that can thrill an audience, even while these roiling feelings are eating away at the performers.
The Swell Season has a respect for its subjects and a restraint in its approach that allows Hansard and Irglova to open up as much as they can -- which in Hansard’s case is quite a lot. By not wallowing in gossip, the film allows us to share the pain and beauty in both their relationship and their music, without ever making the duo seem desperate for fame and attention (quite the opposite of a reality-TV show). The movie may have been shot in black and white, but the feelings onscreen are kaleidoscopic -- and as poignant as their music. leave a comment --Perry Seibert