Talk about dark horses to the ones who produced “Enchanted”. The same year that Disney’s musical was competing for three Oscars for best original song at the 80th Academy Awards, a down-to-earth number from a low-budget release named “Once” stole the prize in their noses. The song was named “Falling Slowly”, and it was performed by the film’s protagonists, Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova.
I am uncertain if I would have learned about the movie were it not for Glen and Marketa’s performance that night. And I can tell you for sure that missing this title (written and directed by John Carney) would have been a great, great loss.
The story revolves around two characters that we know simply as “The Guy” and “The Girl”, their respective dreams, and their determination to make them come true. The title refers to the common attitude among musicians to go for it once they have settled this and that, and they are fully ready to take the dive. In the story, the Guy is a busker who dreams of pursuing a music career in London. The Girl is an accomplished piano player that earns a living as best as she can in the street of Dublin – selling roses, doing menial jobs… The way their story evolves and the naturalness of the events that unfold is the movie’s pivotal achievement.
There are scenes that you will remember long after the movie is over. Personally, I will never forget the first time the Guy and the Girl play together (they do “Falling Slowly” at a store in which they let the Girl play the piano for one hour each day), and the scene in which the Girl writes the words to a melody the Guy has handled her earlier that day. It is a charming scene, and one that reflects how music can transport people to other place where the daily grind just vanishes in thin air.
I also really like the scene in which the Guy and his newly-recruited band (along with the Girl) win over the jaded sound engineer they have been assigned for the recording of a couple of demos. It is also the first time we get to see the full band perform, and as we watch the engineer’s expression change (he had remarked to someone over the phone that he will be stuck on the studio for the weekend with a couple of freaks as they were setting their gear on the other side of the booth) we do realize something. How many times do we judge a person’s ability based on his or her looks? Admit it, didn’t you laugh when Suzan Boyle came onstage for the first time along with anybody else? And didn’t her actual performance do more than entertain you? Didn’t it make you realize that in life things can come in different envelopes, and that these envelopes are mostly damaging to your perception?
“Once” does that as well. It shows how succeeding cinematographically has nothing to do with having a big budget or a grandiose marketing campaign. All you need is a great story. There will be a way of narrating it, and reaching out to people. In the case of “Once”, the crew took advantage of natural lighting and they shot at their friends’ and relatives’ in order to minimize costs.
The leads are not really actors, and neither are the many bit-parts. Although the movie was scripted, many of the lines were improvised such as the words in Czech that Marketa speaks to Glen when asked a pivotal question. Glen’s character does not understand what she tells him, nor does him in real life.
And that is where is at. Notwithstanding how good or not they are, most movies I know are mere imitations of life. They are pieces of fiction, and they might move you but you know the story starts and ends in the screen. Ultimately, “Once” succeeds for being a true slice of life. You know that there are guys and girls out there looking for the chance to strike out once and for all. Maybe, just maybe a movie like this will give them the courage and resolution to do it. Once and for all.
UPDATE: Read the review of the soundtrack album here.