Once: Spoiler-free Review

May 28, 2008 at 9:41 am Leave a comment

Using the phrase ‘Spoiler-free Review’ in the title of this post is kind of unnecessary, since the film Once is a very predictable movie, and you can kind of get where it’s going from the very beginning. That isn’t to say that this film isn’t engaging; on the contrary, every frame is filled with so much emotion and honesty, it doesn’t matter what the story is, you just become so enthralled with these characters.

Once is about two people, a Guy and a Girl (yes, those are their names), that meet, fall in love, and make music, all in the span of a week. The Guy (Glen Hansard) works in his father’s vacuum repair shop during the day, then performs on the street for money at night. While playing one of his original songs, he meets the Girl (Marketa Irglova), who instantly takes a liking to him. She tells him she’s seen him before, and wonders why he doesn’t play original songs during the day. The Guy replies by telling her that most people want to hear songs they already know. This starts a beautiful, if short-lived friendship that shows great insight into human emotion.


This is considered one of the first great musicals of our generation, but it’s very different from most musicals. Most films in this genre use music to support the story (be it a romance, adventure, etc). Here, it’s the story that supports the music. The events that make up the story just serve to be a platform for the music. Since both characters are musicians, it’s pretty believable when they break out into song. For example, the first solo song that the Girl has is when she goes to the store to buys batteries for a CD player that she needs to listen to the Guy’s demo songs. While listening, she begins to create lyrics for the music, thus becoming her first solo. There’s another scene later in the film where they’re recording in a studio for the first time, and it really just looks like they’re recording a song even though it’s another musical number for the movie, but you can tell the excitement they feel by being in a real studio recording one of their songs. It’s completely realistic, since the characters don’t randomly begin singing or breaking out into musical numbers. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, it’s just that this is such a refreshing way to do the musical genre, and I hope that future films experiment with this format.

The music itself is primarily an indie rock or adult contemporary sound. There’s no outlandish musical numbers here, just simple songs primarily with acoustic guitar and piano (Guy playing guitar, Girl playing piano). It’s the lyrics that really shine here, as many of these songs could stand alone as a released single, and while the lyrics don’t exactly follow the ‘story’ of the film, they act as a vehicle for the emotions the characters feel. I recommend buying the soundtrack, since the studio versions of these songs are excellent, and some feature orchestral strings that add a certain warmth to the music.  Oh, and Marketa Irglova kind of sounds like Emilliana Torrini, a singer from Iceland that sang the song from The Two Towers.

Once supposedly only cost the equivalent of $200,000 and shot with two digital cameras. It shows here, as it’s presented in a cinema-verite style that makes it seem like a documentary. According to Marketa Irglova, many fans of the film think it really is a documentary. While the movie may not be the most colorful or beautiful film to look at, the cinematography only adds to the believability of the story. No flashy colors or camera work (except the final shot of the movie), but life sometimes isn’t filled with colors or dramatic crane shots or sweeping pans of the scenery. The drab look only makes the emotion stand out more.

The acting is fine, even though both Glen and Marketa are not professional actors. They both know each other personally, and the director (John Carney) was in the band “The Frames” with Glen, and Glen and Marketa have worked on music under the name “The Swell Season”. This builds a believable repertoire that only true friendship can provide. Both actors claim that they want to focus on music and may not act again, and I somewhat agree. They aren’t bad actors by any means, but their real-life connection gives them something to play off of. Any other performance they could give opposite someone else (like a real actor) may end up looking flat.

I remember listening to the Ebert and Roeper movie podcast (before they stopped producing them for online broadcast) and I believe it was Richard Roeper that said it was a shame it received an ‘R’ rating. Sure, they drop the ‘F’ bomb a few times, but it’s never in a malicious or hateful way. There’s absolutely no sexual acts or violence or anything else that warrant an ‘R’ rating, this is a simple musical that really deserves to be seen by a wider audience and the PG-13 rating would be perfect for it.

On a side note, don’t listen to any of the songs before seeing the movie, it won’t be as enjoyable. I saw Irglova and Hansard perform their winning song at the Oscars and I didn’t like it, but thankfully I gave the film a shot. Now I own the soundtrack and have it playing regularly on my iPod.

Discerning film buffs and musicians owe it to themselves to see this film, it’s absolutely beautiful. Go see it, then fall in love with the story. Then go buy the soundtrack, and fall in love with the music.

9.0/10

If you watch the bonus stuff on the DVD, check out the ‘Webisodes’ featurette. While there’s really only one ‘webisode’ (there could be more hidden ones), it features a song in the movie that wasn’t supposed to be in the movie, and it’s really funny.

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