Saturday, May 19, 2007

Once: a musician's life

Once, a new film by the Irish director (and former member of the Frames) John Carney, chronicles a week in the life of a musician, played by the Frames' Glen Hansard, in which he busks in downtown Dublin, repairs hoovers (vacuum cleaners) with his dad, meets a Czech immigrant played by Marketa Irglova, and repairs her vacuum. They fall in love, which neither one of them wants to admit it, and collaborate (she was classically trained on the piano back home; now she cleans houses) on a CD's worth of tracks that he hopes will make his name. We never learn either of the characters' names.

Sounds simple, even sentimental, but it's not. As far as I can recall, Once is the most clear-eyed view of an ordinary musician's life that I've yet seen on the screen. Hansard's character, serious and a bit depressed, is obsessed with making his songs better. When Irglova plays for him, in a beautiful scene inside a music store, she gets the same bug he does. No, there are no cliches about either making beautiful music with the other -- they misunderstand each other but work it out, culminating in a long recording session with musicians they pick up busking on the street. Hansard acts with his soulful eyes and his height, creating a character who wants his work to succeed because it is the only way he can speak deeply; his battered guitar is a external manifestation of his psyche. Irglova convincingly creates a young Eastern European woman whose life is much more complicated than the Irishman can comprehend, despite his genuine like for her. The way she nonchalantly drags a canister vacuum cleaner down the high street in Dublin speaks oodles about what she's been through and how much it takes to ruffle her.

Amazingly, every time Hansard or Irglova plays a song, we hear the whole thing, not an excerpt, nor does their work run primarily as background, although there are some montages. While this is a boy-meets-girl film that will appeal to many romantics, it's also a feature for musicians, and those who love them. Carney hasn't compromised in making it clear that, to these musicians, love and music are essential, even when music comes first.

Hansard and Irglova wrote most of the songs in the film, both separately and together; the soundtrack is well worth checking out.

Photo of Glen Hansard performing in Central Park last summer by Gisele13 via Flickr.

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