As with time, art heals all wounds. Or at least the best art is capable of such a transformative emotional power. In any form, art is the greatest source of empathy outside of the ear of another human. It can inspire change, it can reflect your joy, and it can ease your pain.
At its’ core, “Once” is both a story of art’s unique power, and an example of it in its’ own right. It reminded me of Richard Linklater’s lovely “Before” films in the simplicity of its’ story, the effectively economic form in its’ storytelling, and the engrossing nature of its’ “What if?” scenario.
Writer-director John Carney, formally of the band The Frames, gives no names to his protagonists- the street-singing Irishman played by Frames frontman Glen Hansard, and the friendly, family-first street-seller played by Czech musician Marketa Irglova (both acting newcomers, neither likely to be forgotten)- but you become so taken by their instant bond on the night-covered Irish streets that you continue along with the characters, seeing their friendship develop as circumstance allows each a chance to meet the other’s parents and spend enough time together to sense a real connection together, culminating in a weekend-long recording session where, for a brief time, the dreams of both of these nonprofessional musicians come true (and inspire the best work from their backup musicians and even the cynical engineer). But could it be more? He isn’t hesitant to think so (even if he isn’t terribly smooth in making his thoughts known to her), but she isn’t so quick to see things his way.
In many ways, “Once” is very much a musical, with the inner thoughts and feelings of the main characters expressed in the songs they write. This is, quite frankly, the best song soundtrack in years (note to Fox Searchlight- get this soundtrack in the hands of music voters in the Academy as soon as possible; “Falling Slowly”- which seemed to enthrall audience members at the showing I went to so much they sat through the end credits to hear it- and “If You Want Me” at the very least are surefire Oscar nominees). That the actors wrote many of the songs themselves only intensifies the film’s effect on a personal level. It, and the knowledge than Hansard and Irglova are dating in real-life, gives the film the feel of an intimate documentary about the lives of the two people at the center of the film, and gives the viewer the sense that Carney- whose emotionally rich yet narratively simple screenplay and direction bring the film to life onscreen- is skirting the boundaries of autobiography with his graceful and romantic approach to the material.
Three moments in the film standout as testaments to “Once’s” lasting emotional impact. The first has them playing “When Your Mind’s Made Up” is the recording studio; we’ve just heard the engineer doing the demo tell a friend on the phone about how he’s stuck with the group of amateurs for the weekend. But at one point as he’s recording the session, his attitude instantly changes; it’s an unspoken realization that resonates with the ring of emotional truth. Earlier in the film, Hansard asks Irglova- after giving her a rough CD of his songs- if she might be able to come up with lyrics for a song where inspiration has escaped him; after a small montage of her listening to the song and writing ideas down, she must go to a nearby convenience store to buy new batteries for the CD player. As she walks out of the store and back to her apartment (shared with her mother and small daughter), she listens again and sings the lyrics to “If You Want Me”- a short interlude into traditional musical convention that strikes of artistic inspiration. The last one is actually the first chronologically; it finds Hansard and Irglova in a music store, where he’s taken an interest in hearing her play piano (which her late violinist father taught her). After a brief performance of Mendelssohn, Hansard gets out his guitar and songbook, and quickly teaches Irglova the harmonic sequences and chorus of “Falling Slowly.” They begin to play, and it’s impossible not to get caught up in the sense of communal healing that comes through in their performance. That’s what happens when you experience a work of art that comes from the heart, and “Once” is one for the ages.