May 3, 2007

On Once

A modern day bohemian musical for the art house set, “Once” doesn’t wear thin in any manner despite all its high wire conceits. John Carney’s new film, winner of the World Cinema Audience Award at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, single handedly reinvents the tired musical genre for the DIY digital age by infusing the songs and the circumstances from which they arise with the naturalistic, long take aesthetic that has become a form of low budget orthodoxy, but the film’s generous spirit and unsentimental central relationship carry the day.

The story is beautiful in its simplicity. An unnamed street musician (Glen Hansard), his guitar and honey smooth voice recalling the most enduring, least excessive elements of Brit-pop and Irish folk, meets cute with a Czech girl (Marketa Irglova) while performing outside a series of Dublin chain apparel stores. They run into each other again on the street, go for coffee, and a subtle attraction develops. She plays piano and in the back of an music store they play one of his songs together in an unbroken eight minute take that is just short of perfect.

Of course, with any delicate musical courtship, complications arise. She is married to an older, money obsessed Czech man who remains in the east, while she takes care of their child in one of Dublin’s Eastern European ghettos. He lives with his father, is suffering through a difficult break-up and as the narrative begins is pondering a move to London in order to jumpstart his recording career and reunite with his girlfriend.

Ultimately the two bond on a more plutonic level and she agrees to help him record an album over a raucous weekend in a backwater studio. They recruit the help of a pair of street musicians and head into the studio as a inexperienced, rag tag band. The recording session goes well and all that’s left for the narrative to discover is weather our pair are really meant for each other. (Beware: Spoiler ahead) Of course, like any generous filmmaker, Carney cares more about being true to his characters than manipulating his audience and this is where this musical romantic comedy departs from your typical Hollywood fare. Like another recent Sundance, DIY digital indie, the Duplass Bros’ “The Puffy Chair”, the filmmakers don’t feel the need to force their protagonists, who obviously have a lot to offer each other but whose circumstances are untenable, to ignore their desires and needs and embark upon a romantic ending that would violate the rounded individuality and the messiness of working class bohemian life that the picture has invested with such verisimilitude.

The film has an incredible energy to it that never dissipates despite the length of the shots or the drab textures of Tim Fleming HDV lensing, in which he constantly reframes shots, moving from one side of a room to another with a smidgen of self-consciousness, seeming in love with these characters, with their flaws and anxieties, but most of all with their beautiful songs, which never interrupt the film’s diegesis, but flow naturally from it. Carney brazenly combines naturalistic digital textures and a loose aesthetic with the otherworldly showiness of the musical genre and amazingly, these moments never seem inauthentic or forced. Of course, despite its overwhelming charms and ‘realism”, “Once” will never be a hit in the way “Chicago” or “Dreamgirls” have been, despite authenticity starved audiences clamoring for something new and thus posing a threat to the staid Hollywood model of tentpoles, remakes, sequels and other sordid spectacles. The fact is, despite Fox Searchlight’s high hopes for this film, it will never reach the number of screens or secure the advertising budgets to reach the audience in could. Nevertheless, the home made feel of the picture, the sense that these lovely rock numbers spring from the our incredibly likeable protagonist (who happens to be quite good), as opposed to the pen of a appropriation obsessed hack, gives the songs a heightened emotional resonance, as they never feel, like ‘Dreamgirls” for instance, a shallow attempt to invest the narrative with a humanity that just isn’t evident in the tawdry performances of pop stars moonlighting as screen actors. “Once” is a winner in everyway.