"Once" Worth Seeing Twice, Three Times, or Four

If I were writing a "10 Favorite Films of 2007" list, or "The Films that Most Made Me Go 'Wow'," or "The Films That Made Me Feel Good Without Feeling Cheap at the Same Time," the No. 1 title would easily be Once (20th Century Fox). I was among the relatively few able to investigate this indie's "just go see it" buzz by catching it in the theaters during it's original run. Twice, in fact. And in a year unusually blessed with good (or at least interesting) movies, Once is one of the handful that left a resonating, lasting impression. (Okay, so I'm a romantic softy, but I'm no pushover, especially when it comes to movies.) Since then it's been a real pleasure seeing the buzz behind this sublime little rough-cut emerald of a film grow despite its limited release. As we begin to wrap up the year during the week Once arrives on DVD, it's

target="_blank">one of the best-reviewed movies of 2007, ranking even above No Country for Old Men and Ratatouille.

Once is that rare and precious surprise in movies: proof of the power of keeping it small, close-in, subtle, and above all, honest. The story is such a simple thing -- a struggling Dublin street musician (Glen Hansard) meets a struggling Czech pianist and teenage mother (Marketa Irglova), and they connect heart-to-heart through their music -- that saying too much about it risks crimping its delicate effectiveness. Billed only as "Guy" in the closing credits, he's a "broken-hearted Hoover-fixing sucker" bloke who some time ago split from his girlfriend in London. He's not over her, and his only outlet for his pent-up pain is his guitar.

Then he meets the pianist -- simply "Girl" -- and, finding a kindred spirit, is startled to discover that this shadowed, nuanced lass shares her flat with her toddler daughter, her mother and three guys from next door who camp on the battered couch to watch the telly. At first he and she play together off-hours at a music store (she can't afford a piano of her own). By the time he invites her to join him in a recording gig, we're so willingly invested in these two that we're immersed within the film rather than just passive onlookers.

Calling Once a musical is tricky because the word brings its own baggage and almost none of that Samsonite is on the screen; although, yes, the couple's story is given breath and motive force by integrating the keening, visceral songs composed by Hansard, of the Irish band The Frames, and his real-life collaborator Irglova. Their Coldplay-style ballads and rock-folk-pop performances don't swerve into commercialized radio-pop pap, and Hansard is, hoo boy, not timid about belting his octave-leaping, scarred-soul voice. It's a score, by the way, that just won the L.A. Critics Award.

To say it's a love story, likewise, is misleading somewhat. Yes, it's a film about two people who share a passion -- music -- and who are drawn to each other so ideally and so genuinely that we ache for them to have that big fade-to-black scene. But emotionally Once has perfect pitch, so it avoids the schmaltz and trite expectations built into that well-worn genre. The ending strikes precisely the right, gentle note, and it's not the note we've been trained to expect at that point in a screen love story.

What Once is, instead, is a film about two people connecting accidentally, yet meaningfully. There is love, though in a truer form than what often passes for love in the movies. Once doesn't plop its emotions on its characters' sleeves, and it trusts us enough to leave some of the best stuff unstated. In other words, it trusts us to know that half the music lies between the notes.

The film's storied production history (chronicled well in the DVD's extras) is an example of misfortune being exactly the right kind of good luck. Once was originally intended to star actor Cillian Murphy, who was also one of its producers. So at the time the production boasted a significantly bigger budget. But Murphy pulled out, taking the film's other producers and their financial resources with him.

It was the best thing that could have happened.

Writer-director John Carney turned to the film's songwriter, Hansard, to take the role of the street busker. Hansard knew the role down to his bones. He had been a hardscrabble busker since dropping out of school at age 13, on the advice of a headmaster. Initially reluctant, he feared that as a non-actor he wouldn't have the chops to co-carry the film. But after it was agreed that he would be fully involved in the filmmaking and that Once would be low budget and intimate, he took the part.

Together he and Irglova achieve an honesty and authenticity that's augmented by Carney's naturalistic, vérité-like hi-def video camerawork, which required some guerrilla filmmaking tactics when the crew didn't get permits to shoot in some public settings.

In this sweet and uncluttered "small" film, we're close enough to the characters to sense the real relationship developing between the two leads. They came out as a couple while touring during the film's festival circuit, where at Sundance Once won the Audience Award and was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize.

And that's just the right note.

Fox's DVD brings Once to our homes with a good-looking image (anamorphic 1.85:1) and superb Dolby Surround sound. Two easygoing, personable commentary tracks are on board. The first brings us director Carney with Hansford and Irglova discussing the film's development, on-set anecdotes and other production reminiscences. Sitting in for the second, song-specific "musical" commentary track, Carney gives the spotlight to Hansard and Irglova focusing on their creative and collaborative involvement with the film and its memorable score.

Behind-the-scenes material comes with the featurettes "Making a Modern Day Musical" and "More Guy, More Girl." We also get the minute-long webisode "Broken Hearted Hoover Fixer Sucker Guy," and PC users can pull down a free download of the song "Falling Slowly."