I freely admit that normally the prospect of watching a musical has me not running for but either driving or catching a high speed train to the nearest hills (and if there’s a flight available that’s all the more preferable). All the histrionics. The warbling…nay…the caterwauling. The abhorrent jauntiness. The impassioned straining. The tears. The whole package usually turns me off and I’m forever wondering why the characters don’t just talk to each other rather than thrust their emotions back and forth through the medium of song. And by and large it’s those songs that I dislike. Put simply, it’s not my kind of music. I’d rather stick needles into my ears or watch an entire weekend marathon of Jason Statham films (including all of the DVD extras) than sit through ninety excruciating musical minutes. I am, I can only presume, missing the point.
This year, though, I’ve found myself mellowing somewhat, and this has caught me entirely by surprise. First off I read a great review last month by Steve Habrat on the Anti-Film School site for Les Misérables (which means ‘The Miserables’ for any non-French speakers out there), and now I’m pretty sure that I want to see it at some point. I know I’ll dislike the music, I know I’ll be wincing throughout as if I’m wide awake during root canal surgery, but as a grand scale production it sounds fascinating.
Secondly, I found myself watching and thoroughly enjoying Once, an Irish musical from 2006 written and directed by John Carney. I enjoyed the fairly simple love story, I enjoyed its lo-fi, low budget production values, I enjoyed the performances and … here’s the dealbreaker … I enjoyed the music made by the film’s two stars, Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová.
The two play the twin lead roles of ‘The Guy’ and ‘The Girl’. The former is a busker working the crowded shopping streets of Dublin while temporarily living at home with his father, following both a relationship break-up and the death of his mother. The latter is a Czech migrant, selling flowers and copies of The Big Issue in order to support her mother and daughter, who have also moved with her to Ireland’s capital. They meet on the streets and the film charts their relationship as they make music together and their feelings for each other gradually become stronger. Unfortunately The Guy still pines after his ex, who now lives in London, and to complicate matters further The Girl has a husband who is still living in Czechoslovakia. (Despite an age difference of 18 years between Hansard and Irglová, the two have a very believable on-screen chemistry, and a real-life romance blossomed between the two during filming, which apparently lasted until 2009.)
Cillian Murphy originally signed on to play The Guy, but pulled out several weeks before shooting was due to commence. Unfortunately the film’s slated Producer also pulled out as a result, leaving Carney with a script, a female star and several songs but with no money and no male lead.
Hansard, lead singer with Irish band The Frames (with whom Carney had played in the 1990s), had co-written the songs with Irglová and was talked in to taking the lead role by his director friend. Luckily for all involved he agreed to do it, and he gives an assured but understated performance, only letting loose when playing his own songs. Irglová, in her debut role, is equally at home in front of the camera and though the musical scenes presumably required less acting effort from the two, around 40% of the film is non-musical, and both acquit themselves commendably throughout.
The songs used in the film are uplifting, folk-rock numbers that caught the ear of Bob Dylan, among others, who asked The Frames to support him on tour. One song, ‘Falling Slowly’, won the 2007 Academy Award for Best Original Song. (Legend has it Hansard joked: “And the Oscar for best song goes to…” after recording it.) While they won’t be to everyone’s tastes they do fit perfectly with the storyline. I liked ‘em.
Dublin’s streets are photographed very normally throughout; there is no great desire to portray the city as something it isn’t, and the high streets shown in Once will be familiar to anyone that lives in or has visited the UK’s major cities. This in itself is a breath of fresh air, as is the casting; the characters look ‘normal’, and that’s meant entirely as a compliment. The film’s world is entirely believable, as it’s so instantly recognisable.
Even the introduction of music seems natural: The Guy and The Girl first play together in a musical instrument shop which The Girl uses for piano practice as she cannot afford a piano of her own. Shortly thereafter The Guy serenades The Girl on top of an almost empty bus with the tale of his broken down relationship, before launching into a witty heavy metal pastiche. At another point singers are filmed at a musical party. Forgive the cliché, but music is such an intrinsic part of Irish life that none of it seems forced in this film.
Money can’t buy heart, and though the filmmakers worked on a shoestring budget they have produced a film that contains more soul than a month’s worth of major blockbusters. The film’s simple tale is warm, bittersweet and deftly-handled by Carney, and it’s unsurprising that it became a success story upon its release (the subsequent Broadway musical has also been extremely successful, with the UK version opening next week at the time of writing). If you dislike musicals, perhaps this one might change your attitude a little, as it did mine.
Directed by: John Carney
Written by: John Carney
Starring: Glen Hansard, Markéta Irglová
Running Time: 86 minutes