As the title suggests, here is a movie that doesn’t want to overstate anything. That’s good, because it’s a musical. Probably not on purpose, writer-director John Carney’s Sundance audience-award winner serves as an oblique reminder to lament again the genre’s recent decline. Let’s just say that with all due respect to Dreamgirls and Rent and other recent hand-me-downs from the Broadway-bathos school of moviemaking, it’s about time a motion-picture musical with authentic indie-rock aesthetics came along.
This one is so low-key that it may well bore or even annoy fans of those other overcooked extravaganzas, while also ever-so-gently revealing how preposterous they (both the fans and the extravaganzas) actually are. In other words, Once opts against what other contemporary musicals seem to strive for—namely, falsity.
Instead, and in spades, it has its own peculiar naturalism, a kind of lo-fi, lovelorn charm. Two young and heartsick aspiring musicians, whose names we never learn (they’re portrayed by Glen Hansard of Dublin’s the Frames and Czech singer-songwriter Markéta Irglová), meet on the Dublin streets. He’s a busker with a beat-up guitar, covering Van Morrison (beautifully) by day and opening up on his own shattering, superbly crafted originals at night for an audience of zero—until she comes along. She lacks her own instrument but has piano privileges in a local music store, where after some flirty interrogation and persuasion the two of them begin performing with each other and for each other at the same time. It’s lovely, the dawn of an exquisite creative courtship.
Arguably, also, it’s meant to be. For what do these two have left to lose? They’re both broke and bummed out with worry over squandered potential, mired somewhere between hopelessness and artistic exhilaration, comfortable neither as strangers nor as intimates and all full of doubts and hesitations and poignant mutual longings.
But they’re not quite each other’s saviors, and that’s as it should be. Importantly, the action does not unfold as might be expected. For one thing, there isn’t any action. The couple’s connection remains sexless. Each is still emotionally involved with a prior relationship: for her, it’s the estranged husband back in the Czech Republic; for him, the departed lover who inspired his songs. What’s most important, though, is that their heightened emotions will prove creatively fertile. He wants to make a record; she will help.
And, well, there you have it. True, there’s little in the way of actual drama. When you think about it, story-wise, Once really isn’t much of a movie at all. But you don’t think about it; you feel it, because goddamn, those songs are good. Also worth noting is that the music is of structural necessity. What a delight to discover that melodic, heartbreaking alt-pop really can be some people’s vernacular.
Carney’s breezy storytelling treats the material generously, making intimacy a priority and taking every opportunity to meet vulnerability with kindness. It occurs often between the two leads, who show a rare and highly compassionate chemistry, even when only exchanging glances. It also shows up among supporting characters, like the busker’s father (Bill Hodnett) and a studio engineer (Geoff Minogue), who both respond to the music with quietly affirming receptiveness.
The film isn’t above stylistic flourishes, like a nimbly lengthy, single-shot sequence in which she walks out into the city night, in slippers and earphones, working out her lyrics to his music. But this accords with the intentions of Carney’s rough-hewn, hand-crafted style, shaded equally with grit and grace. For all his lingering, attentive takes, cinematographer Tim Fleming goes out of his way to stay out of everyone else’s way. He underlights for a grubby-cozy effect. Coupled with the unaffected, openhearted performances, it adds up to a nice helping of raffish appeal. And it goes to show that a musical can accomplish a lot without braying mawkish platitudes in syrupy vibrato over zillions of watts of whatever.
What’s good about Once is that it’s so basic: Its moral and emotional universe is consistent with that of its music. No, it’s not real life, but who would want that, anyway? It’s better than real life. It’s the promise life makes, and more: the special communion of the creative process, so plainly presented and still so full of beauty and mystery.