Don't even think about running off with Judge Clark Douglas' guitar case.
Our review of Once, published December 20th, 2007, is also available.
How often do you find the right person?
Describing what makes Once such a great film is a tricky thing, as it isn't "great" in the same sense that many movies are "great." On a technical level, it's exceptionally simple, featuring cheap, handheld cinematography which often makes it look like footage from a behind-the-scenes documentary. There aren't any big dramatic monologues, and the story is so spare and simple that it only occupies a small portion of the film's brief 86-minute running time. The movie doesn't work because of its plot, but because it generates so much raw feeling. It's naked emotion captured on celluloid, and easily one of the finest musicals of the 21st century to date.
Our two central characters aren't given names, but they're both lovely and memorable. The Guy (Glen Hansard, who before this film was best known as the founder of The Frames) is an Irish street musician who sings covers of popular tunes by day and performs his own original material at night. This hardly brings in enough to make a living, of course, so he also spends time repairing vacuum cleaners with his father. One day, he meets The Girl (Marketa Irglova, who co-founded The Swell Season with Hansard). She likes his music (the original stuff, in particular) and also happens to own a broken vacuum cleaner. The two hit it off rather quickly, but a bond truly begins to form when The Guy discovers that The Girl is also a musician.
Unlike most movie musicals, Once actually integrates the musical performances into the reality of the movie. Because both characters are musicians, there's plenty of motivation to have them playing and singing (together or individually) without breaking the slice-of-life reality the film establishes. The first truly tremendous musical sequence comes when The Guy and The Girl wander into a music store. He strums his guitar and she plays the piano as they work their way through one of his compositions, and it doesn't take long for the tentative harmonies they form to turn into something full-blooded and passionate. After a while, The Guy is inspired to see how far his musical abilities can take him, and the story of his eventual success is aided immeasurably by the fact that the songs are actually really, really good (some had been featured on Hansard's earlier albums, some were written specifically for the film).
There's a bit of drama in the film's second half, as The Guy discovers some of The Girl's secrets and situations arise which threaten to drive them apart, but these developments are never melodramatic or forced. They talk about their situation here and there, but mostly they sing about it (rarely directly, of course, but you can hear their true feelings in their voice when they sing). A sizable portion of the movie is built on extended musical sequences, filled with deep longing and melancholy. The film's tendency to use music rather than dialogue to explore the characters occasionally gives it a bittersweet, dreamlike quality, but it's always grounded in something tangible and real. As I said, it's a tricky thing to describe. You just have to see it, feel it and let it wash over you.
Once (Blu-ray) doesn't look great in 1.85:1/1080p HD, but it's important to note that this is largely due to the limitations of the source material. This film was shot on a very low budget with relatively cheap cameras, and that's consistently obvious throughout (there are quite a few moments when it looks like a standard-def presentation). Still, the disc looks good under the circumstances. Colors are bright and vibrant throughout, and it's certainly an upgrade from the DVD. The DTS-HD 2.0 Master Audio track is stellar, faring superbly during the musical sequences and generally capturing the dialogue and natural environmental sound with clarity. Supplements include two commentaries with director John Carney, Hansard and Irglova (one traditional commentary, one focusing on the music), two fairly standard making-of featurettes ("Making a Modern Day Musical" and "More Guy, More Girl") and a brief webisode.
Once isn't a film which begs to be seen in hi-def, but it certainly is a film which begs to be a part of your collection. It's a gorgeous little movie, and I haven't seen anything else quite like it. If you don't have it already, this release is certainly the best option. Highly recommended,
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