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June 6, 2007 |

By John Williams | Film | June 6, 2007 |

The degree to which you get swept away by Once will be exactly the degree to which you like the music of Damien Rice. The wispy songwriter doesn’t appear in the movie (though he is thanked in the closing credits), but the songs at the center of this indie musical are straight from his mold — simple, sentimental lyrics sung in an alternately gentle and keening voice by a sensitive guy, with backup vocals and piano from an equally sensitive woman. In fact, if you believe in reviews as simple utilitarian guides to whether or not you should see something, look no further than this first paragraph. If Rice’s songs are near the top of your iTunes when you organize things by “play count,” and if your late-night drives are accompanied by his music and tearful thoughts of an ex, run to see this movie. If his voice sends you into physical spasms followed by a strong urge to send him to boot camp for some toughening up, skip this one.

Me, I fall somewhere in between. When woe-rock is judiciously placed on film it can underscore an emotion, but when someone (oh, I don’t know, Zach Braff) uses it too often, you start to wonder if the movie was reverse-engineered from the soundtrack. John Carney, the writer-director of Once, at least gets credit for owning up to the order of things; his movie is primarily, self-consciously a vehicle to showcase original songs performed by Glen Hansard (of the Irish rock band The Frames) and Marketa Irglova (a Czech musician who recorded an album with Hansard last year).

Set in Dublin, Once opens on the unnamed busker played by Hansard singing “And the Healing Has Begun” by Van Morrison to a sparse afternoon crowd. So far, so good. In fact, given the choice of song, one of my very favorites, I was ready to move Once to the front of the Oscar race. In the ensuing scene, he sings an original number of his at night, to no one. When he opens his eyes, a lone pretty woman (Irglova) stands in front of him, clapping.

It doesn’t spoil things to recount most of the rest. Hansard, heartbroken about a former girlfriend who cheated on him and now lives in London, spends part of his time working in a vacuum cleaner repair shop with his stoic father. Irglova is an immigrant street vendor (roses) who can sing and play piano. She lives with her mother and the young daughter she had with a now-estranged husband. The two quickly end up in a music store — the owner allows Irglova to play the pianos she can’t afford — and find that mixing their musical chocolate and peanut butter makes for a tasty treat. Mismatched in age but obviously drawn to each other, the pair’s innocent flirtations continue and they eventually rent a recording studio for a weekend with a full band. (In the movie, Irglova appears to be at least 10 years younger than Hansard. In real life, it’s more like 20.)

It’s easy to admire Once. Filmed in a naturalistic way, with charming amateur actors hired for their musical abilities, it’s the type of movie I wrote about in a guide last week. And there are satisfying scenes when Carney gets creative with his limited palette. In one, Irglova is listening to one of Hansard’s musical tracks, trying to sing along with the lyrics she’s writing for it, when the batteries on her portable disc player die. She ventures out into the late night for a fresh supply. As she walks home, listening to the music on the rejuvenated machine, Carney turns the small, private moment into a larger pleasure by laying the fully mixed track over the visual image.

The crippling problem is that Once is a genuine musical — I would guess that 60 of its 85 minutes feature songs, frequently played in their entirety. But unlike, say, Guys and Dolls, where the songs tell stories, all of the music in Once is of the generic “you broke us down with your lies” and “call and I’ll come running” variety. None of them develop the story or push it forward; they simply tell you, over and over again, that these are people who feel a great deal. So Once might be a noble stripped-down affair, with the beginnings of a compelling love story, but in the end it’s an extended music video. If it was a video based on the more literary work of Paul Simon, or even Springsteen, we might be talking about something. But based on work that echoes Damien Rice? That’s a watery stew.

John Williams lives in Brooklyn. He’s an editor at Harper Perennial and a freelance writer. He blogs at A Special Way of Being Afraid.

We're All in the Mood for a Melody, and You've Got Us Feelin'...OK

Once / John Williams

Film | June 6, 2007 |

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