Newly blooming cherry blossoms mark the start of the swelling season for Judge William Lee.
"Fair play to those who dare to dream."—from Markéta 's Oscar acceptance speech
Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová were the darlings at the 2007 Academy Awards after "Falling Slowly" won Oscars for Best Original Song. Real romance blossomed between the musicians-turned-actors during the making of the movie Once and subsequently they began touring together as the Swell Season. Fans loved their music but perhaps they were even more loved as the couple from the movie. While their on-screen personas' love was unrequited at the end of the movie, romantics saw the musical couple living the happy ending they deserved in real life.
Facts of the Case
The documentary The Swell Season follows the musical group, headlined by Glen and Markéta, on tour performing to sold-out audiences in large venues. Cinematographer and co-director Chris Dapkins captures the stage performances, backstage tensions and the gradually eroding love affair between Glen and Markéta. Producer and co-director Carlo Mirabella-Davis and editor and co-director Nick August-Perna set out to chronicle their world tour but they've also been witness to the collision between musicianship and relationship.
As a documentary on Glen's musical career, The Swell Season intimately informs us of the back-story to his drive to succeed. In his early teens a school headmaster encouraged him to leave home and try to make it as a musician and that combination of encouragement and personal risk typified Glen's determination to be a musician. From busking on street corners to playing to packed theaters, Glen definitely seems to be living the life he's sought and that's something of immense pride to his parents. His mother can't stop talking about how her son is an Oscar winner and she angrily dismisses Glen's melancholy about being famous. "No, don't take that away from me," she tells him. James Hansard, Glen's father, is a more complex figure, perpetually drunk but knowing that when Glen won the Oscar "he's done it for me." James was a champion boxer in his youth but he gave up a chance to fight professionally in America. Whatever regrets and dark thoughts he has, they're stubbornly safeguarded from his family.
Early in the film, it is clear that Markéta has a harder time opening up in front of the camera. We see a brief visit with her family in the Czech Republic and a recounting of the early days of her romance with Glen but the young musician is reluctantly caught up in the limelight. Before a concert she is highly agitated by the prospect of meeting another throng of fans. One admirer in the overwhelmingly female crowd tells her, "You guys are a beautiful story and I hope you guys make it to the end of time." Markéta's reluctance to pose for pictures with her fans is met with dismissal from Glen.
After countless days on the road, the grueling schedule takes its toll on the couple. An intimate conversation becomes an argument when comments are misconstrued. What should have been supportive words are heard as criticisms. In real life, there tends not to be sudden and clear betrayals but rather a gradual disintegration of their special bond. Dapkins's camera is omnipresent but seemingly unobtrusive as band members and friends talk to him like he's another member of the entourage. His footage doesn't capture the moment when everything changed but it does observe that the chemistry between Glen and Markéta isn't what it was.
Much like the other collaborative projects by this musical and romantic duet, the DVD's technical presentation is modest but beautiful. The digital photography exhibits what might be compression issues when you look closely at areas of the image that should be stable, solid fields of light. The black and white image helps to mask those imperfections, making blotches of digital noise appear like course film grain. The high contrast picture is uniformly sharp and gorgeous. Dialogue that is spoken with a thicker Irish accent is helpfully subtitled. Otherwise, the stereo mix is just fine for vocal clarity and allowing room for Glen to belt out his lyrics.
The disc includes 45 minutes of deleted scenes. These are mostly extended song performances and their absence from the final film is the right call. One scene, though, shows Glen and Markéta practicing a song together and it's a reminder of how well they worked together as artists. The trailer is also included as an extra.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The Swell Season is focused on following Glen and Markéta during the tour as would be expected. However, the directors don't put enough effort into communicating the daily grind of the tour. I have to refer to the back of the DVD cover to know that the film covers a three-year period in their lives. It's hard to fully comprehend how grueling the Swell Season tour really was without indications of how quickly time and cities were passing in their hectic lives. I am also curious when they had breaks in the tour and whether Glen and Markéta preferred to be apart during those times. As the couple realized they would not stay together, how did that affect their band mates and the act? Lacking details of the bigger picture of the tour, the film isn't very effective as a documentary of the musicians' lives on the road.
Fans of Once shouldn't despair that the real life romance between Glen and Markéta didn't last. The lesson of the movie was that two souls could find a special once-in-a-lifetime connection even though circumstances don't allow them to be together. Their lives mirroring that of their movie characters doesn't negate the wonderful collaboration they've shared. As The Swell Season concludes, we hear first Glen and then Markéta perform individually and it sounds like they'll be even stronger as solo acts. Viewers seeking another dose of bittersweet romance will admire these darers and dreamers for sharing their experience.
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