Editor’s Note: I just turned off the 2008 Academy Awards and realized that the only award category I cared about this year was Best Song. That’s because it’s the only category that Once, the small, simple Irish film made for just 100K, was nominated in (for the gorgeous, haunting, and hopeful “Falling Slowly”). It won (in a rare moment of a truly indie film getting recognized by Hollywood), and I wanted to take the opportunity to remind our readers of this spectacular film and Pastor Ryan Bell’s review (scroll down and watch the trailer which is set to the award-winning song). You can also buy Once or the soundtrack through Spectrum’s Amazon account and support our efforts to bring you news, reviews, and commentary while supporting independent, original filmmaking.
One evening in early August I walked to the three-screen theater in my neighborhood to see a movie. It’s an old theater—a relic of a past age when movie going was done on a more human scale. The screens are smaller, the seats are less comfortable, but the atmosphere is classic.
What I encountered in that small theater that night was a slice of humanity. The film was Once—a simple story of a guy (Glen Hansard) and a girl (Marketa Irglova), whose names we never learn. They meet randomly on the streets of Dublin. She is from the Czech Republic; he from Ireland. We quickly learn they both share a love of music and have created some original songs that they are reluctant to share with the public. Together they help each other through their surprisingly similar circumstances and broken relationships.
But maybe we shouldn’t be surprised. Their circumstances are not unique at all. In fact, these two are everyman and everywoman (this is why it never bothers us that they aren’t named). They, like we, are wounded souls. Broken hearts and broken dreams are never far from consciousness, affecting almost everything we do—coloring our perceptions of people, shaping our relationships, limiting our ability to live into our dreams. Individually they are facing the loneliness and fear that we each face when we’re honest with ourselves.
Perhaps what is surprising is the simple and unpretentious way that Irglova intrudes into Hansard’s safe self-pity. In one of my favorite sequences in the film we see Irglova dragging her broken vacuum cleaner through the busy streets of Dublin without a hint of self-consciousness. Hansard, a “Hoover fixer” by day, has promised that he would look at her broken Hoover and we are left wondering, “Could they have been brought into each others’ orbit by a vacuum cleaner?”
Their relationship moves naturally from a vacuum cleaner to a piano store where their first collaborative musical effort is a metaphor for their relationship: cautious at first, learning, moving into beautiful harmony and then sheer, soaring joy! Their relationship comes to life right before our eyes and it is utterly believable.
In an early scene, after meeting only the night before, the two stand in an extremely busy pedestrian street where she is peddling magazines and he his music. They have discovered each other. In the midst of this rushing mass of humanity they pause. They are connected by their broken dreams and by their hope, expressed so powerfully in music. Indeed it is their music, crafted in the crucible of their pain and joy, that carries the film.
This is a modern musical in which the musical elements don’t feel forced or added on. In traditional musicals people break into song where “normal people” would just talk. It is a powerful theatrical device. But in Once, the music and the narrative are seamless. In trying to describe this film to my wife before she and I were able to see it together I said, “It’s a film about two musicians. No. It’s film about their music. No, that’s not right either. It’s a film about two people who are brought together by their music.” That still doesn’t capture it all; it is all of these things and more, but the music serves as the emotional glue and the narrative thread running through the story. It is the music they both create that is the windows into their souls that make this a story worth telling.
Another truly delightful subnarrative (or maybe it’s really what sums up their relationship) is the recording of Hansard’s demo album. Inspired by his new relationship, he cashes out his savings, hires a recording studio and pieces together a band that he and Irglova find playing cover tunes on a street corner. The sound technician at the studio, with only facial expressions, gives voice to how we’re all feeling: this is an odd bunch of chaps. But it doesn’t take long for the group to come together as a creative community. Even the (rightly) skeptical technician is convinced.
The scene reminds me of many churches I’ve been a part of, including my current church in Hollywood. “What an odd bunch of people,” I think to myself. From sophisticated artists and professionals to homeless individuals–-how can this possible work? The church can learn much from observing what brings this group together.
In spite of the soaring music and simple, lovable plot this story is not naive. Many lesser films would move quickly to the two falling in love and living “happily ever after.” But in Once, reality is always close at hand. Things are never as simple as they seem “in the movies.”
Rather than taking the well-worn path of resolving the tension of the story in cliché ways that resemble cotton candy in your mouth – tasty for a moment, gone the next – this film is patient. It takes time for a good story to yield the treasure that lies beneath the surface. What if there is something more than just a quick romance, a fling, or the heat of passion?
This is a story that reminds us that deep and lasting relationships are worth the trouble and that redemption is possible, even if not easy. There are no guarantees, but love is worth the risk. It is a story that tugs at your soul and not just your heart. It gives hope without resorting to sentimental idealism.
Stepping out of that old, somewhat uncomfortable theater and onto the familiar streets of my Los Angeles neighborhood the whole world looked different. People looked different. This is what good filmmaking does, I think. It transforms your view and opens up new possibilities for actual living. More than just entertaining, in the sense of escaping reality for two hours, this is a film that helps the viewer more deeply engage with small wonders present in the reality we take for granted each and every day.
Now, instead of passing people on the street without looking at them, I began to really see people. At least for that night. Hansard and Irglova create not just music. They create hope. In the midst of my own loneliness, brokenness, and fleeting moments of genuine rapture, something beautiful can be created.
Treat yourself to the trailer for Once, set to the (now Oscar-winning) song “Falling Slowly.”
Ryan Bell watches films and writes from Hollywood where he is the pastor of the Hollywood church.