Once wasn’t meant to be such a success story. On paper, it certainly doesn’t sound like one. Shot in Dublin over 17 days, for a mere £75,000, it was an art-house musical (a ‘visual album) with two relatively unknown leads who had little acting experience. There isn’t too much dialogue. The loose plot explores the unlikely relationship between a busker and an immigrant single mother and the highlight of the movie is the recording of a demo tape.
No, it was not meant to be a success. It was definitely not meant to gross $20million world-wide; capture the attention of Stephen Spielberg; win the Independent Spirit Award at Sundance; secure a Grammy nomination for Best Soundtrack; win an Oscar for Best Song; have its leads immortalised in an episode of The Simpsons or be turned into a Tony Award winning Musical. But it did and it did so because of, not in spite of its humble beginnings.
We never even find out the lead characters names!
For those of you who haven’t seen it, Once charts the tale of a brief friendship between a broken hearted busker and wannabe full-time musician, played by Glen Hansard and a Czech immigrant, played by Marketa Irglova who is a young mother and fellow songwriter. They meet on the Dublin streets, they write songs together and she encourages him to record a demo to take to London. Their relationship grows, he fixes her vacuum cleaner and meets her daughter. She has a husband. He has an ex-girlfriend. They form a beautiful connection but never kiss. It is simple, natural but quite magical.
The film’s writer and director John Carney claims he came up with the idea for Once in about five minutes as he was missing his actor girlfriend who had moved to London. He told The Guardian, ‘I was sitting there thinking, “Where has the Dublin I knew gone?” The city has shed a lot of its greatness. It has lost its soul. I was seeing all these new immigrants in Dublin and identifying with them. I decided I wanted one character who was a Dubliner and one who was not.’ Carney makes the subtle point that his characters are living in a changing city where the economic boom has passed them by and the decisions they have to make are getting harder and harder.
Chance played a large part in the making of the movie. Hansard had known Irglova since she was 13 and his band, The Frames, played at a European Festival her father was running. He introduced her to Carney who, despite her lack of acting experience, cast her opposite Cillian Murphy who was originally slated to play the male lead. When Murphy dropped out (along with quite a lot of the funding), Carney turned to Hansard, who had previously acted in Alan Parker’s The Commitments as bassist Outspan Foster, and who was writing the songs anyway. With less money now available and distribution looking unlikely, the original plan was to sell the DVD at Hansards gigs.
Carney cut corners where he could, filming with a long lens on the streets of Dublin without a permit, using friends and family as extras and filming a party scene in Hansards own flat where Irglova made all the food. This home-spun feel gives the movie its heart. The actors are relaxed, a lot of the dialogue improvised and the focus remains on their relationship with each other and with music and how they express themselves through music. For a musical, it is realistic rather than outlandish. The songs come organically from the story and no one here is bursting into orchestrated song. The songs drive the relationship and the movie forward without seeming to try too hard. We can tell that the characters love music, but also that the performers love music, so there feels like there is no artifice, no overlay of technique or imposition of style. Once is a musical for people who don’t like musicals.
What it also is, is a movie for anyone who has ever had one of those ‘what if?’ relationships, for anyone who has ever been in love and that is what gives it that magic. It helps, I’m sure, that Hansard and Irglova were falling in love while making the movie as they have a comfortable, easy chemistry that is quiet but intense. There is a moment when the Guy asks Irglova’s character if she loves her husband and she replies in unsubtitled Czech, ‘No, I love you’, when it was shot, Hansard didn’t know what she had said and neither do we. This uncertainty, this lack of a conventional happy ending makes Once depressing, yet oddly uplifting. It may not have a happy ending, but it has the right ending. It’s one of those films that you watch, hoping it doesn’t take a wrong turn and it doesn’t disappoint.
After winning the Best Foreign Film at Sundance, ‘Once’ opened in the US to rave reviews, with the Village Voice calling it ‘one of the greatest musicals of the modern age’ and Steven Spielberg publically backing it saying, ‘A little movie called Once gave me enough inspiration to last the rest of the year’. The film’s director John Carney was a little more sanguine when he said ‘It’s a nice addition to the world, as opposed to a piece of rubbish’ but even this self-deprecation can’t take away from the fact that Once is supremely lovable because of the human scale and anything flashier would have detracted from what it is – two people, their music and no false notes.