It takes all of ten seconds for John Carney’s new movie “Once” to announce itself as something special. A handsome young street musician in Dublin raises his voice in song, then raises it higher with heart-stopping fervor. When a mysteriously endearing young woman stops to interrogate him about his music – she turns out to be a musician too -- the movie reveals itself as something magical. When they sing their first duet, it’s a song of such transporting passion that you wonder where the drama can possibly go, since they’re obviously made for each other and should leave the screen immediately and go live the rest of their lives in private bliss.
The lovers are played by Glen Hansard, the lead singer of the Irish rock group The Frames, and Marketa Irglova, a musician from the Czech Republic (who was only 17 when the movie was shot.) Both performances give new meaning to the timeworn phrase ‘pitch-perfect,’ and both characters do nicely without names; they’re listed in the credits only as the Guy and the Girl. If that suggests a certain preciousness, there’s no need to worry. “Once” is as smart and funny as it’s sweet. In all of 88 minutes, this one of a kind fable follows its guy and girl through a week of musical and emotional growth that could suffice for a lifetime.
Music is intrinsic to the filmmaker’s plan. The love story can be seen – and felt and heard -- as a succession of chord changes, and the exquisite resolution amounts to a mutual musical offering. At a time when movie musicals have come to be synonymous with emotional and visual extravagance – the super-mega-over-the-topness of “Chicago” or “Dreamgirls” – John Carney has dared to take everything down to its essence. What’s left is two intensely likable people trying urgently, through very few words and a baker’s dozen of eloquent songs, to come to terms with love they’ve lost and collaborate on the future.
As Guys go, this one seems like the answer to a Girl’s prayer. He sings like an angel – a loud angel who’s no stranger to anger. He summons sumptuous sounds from his battered guitar, and writes brilliant songs when he isn’t fixing Hoover vacuums in his father’s Dickensian shop. As Girls go, this one is irresistible from the first moment she opens her mouth: When was the last time you couldn’t wait to find out what a movie character was all about? She’s got spunk to spare, speaks with a slightly extra-terrestrial accent, sings with no accent at all, writes her own powerful songs and, wonder of wonders, has a Hoover that needs repair. (In one of the many memorable sequences in the film, she trails her ailing vacuum cleaner, like a blue dog on a hose instead of a leash, as she and her Guy stroll through Dublin’s streets.)
In 1991, the year Glen Hansard started The Frames, he also played a baby-faced guitarist in another Irish film with music, “The Commitments” (which is one of my all-time favorites.) Very much like that film, this new one grounds its characters in the rock-solid specifics of musicianship. When the Girl plays Mendelssohn on a piano in a music store, the Guy listens with enchanted intensity. When they finally get to singing lyrics that she’s written to his melody, the sense of their intimacy transcends physicality.
The title of one of the songs in “Once” is “You Must Have Fallen From the Sky.” That’s the way I came to feel about this wonderful movie.