I’ve always thought that my ideal film would be a great documentary about music and, at the same time, have excellent music in it. And while “Once” isn’t a documentary, it’s filmed in such a way as to provide a filmically minimalistic and voyeuristic glimpse into the lives of these two seemingly anonymous musical talents. Set in Dublin, Ireland, this film stars non-actors Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova as the respective “guy” and “girl" -- they’re listed as such in the credits. That only adds to the candid look we get into their lives by giving us a safe distance to watch the events unfold as strangers. There’s not a lot of (hardly any) back story, or shameless character development that would bog it down. Nothing that we wouldn't overhear at a dinner party is revealed to us, and thus, the story floats peacefully along like Richard Linklater’s “Before Sunrise" meets "Lost in Translation" set to music. The characters meet and fall for each other, and establish a real connection through the music they create.
Hansard plays a street musician working for change part-time, and working for his father in his vacuum repair shop the other part of the time. It’s during one of his performances that he meets a charmingly scatter-brained, street merchant girl, who is immediately intrigued by him. And as the events unfold, he turns his intrigue towards her (a musical savant, herself). Together they experiment with a sound that’s both haunting and powerful, that grows organically like their relationship. Soon after, they form a makeshift band for a weekend in a recording studio, and create something beautiful that's, although fleeting, captured forever in the music. Some of the most powerful and effective scenes involve the couple's first collaboration together in the music shop, and "the guy's" usually stoic father's reaction to the recordings: "It's fucking brilliant," he simply states. That reaction hits you much the same way as the scene where the musically elitist recording engineer is immediately endeared to the band's sound hits you. He's not a character by any means. He's realistic and believable. He's not the greedy studio head that they have to grapple with, or that tries to capitalize on their sound. They collaborate, and it works. It throws unconventional, and not at all unbelievable, "twists" like that at you that make it feel familiar and yet refreshing, all at the same time.
And even though it may not end the way most hopeless romantics would want it too, it's not bleak by any means -- in fact, it's the opposite. It's very hopeful and inspirational. It’s the tragic story of a great band/love that never was, but only once, came together to create something truly beautiful. Last, but certainly not least, the music in this film is, thankfully, excellent (if it wasn't, this film probably would have been forgettable), and the main reason for experiencing it. It may not be perfect, and overall, I felt, a little uneven, but there aren't nearly enough problems with it that should ultimately deter viewers… or listeners for that matter, since, as writer/director John Carney describes it, it’s a “video album." I don’t think I could have phrased it any better.