Once is a perfect movie to discover on DVD. Trust me: You’ll fall hard for this love story about a Dublin street musician (Glen Hansard) and a Czech immigrant (Markéta Irglová) and the romance they discover not only between themselves but in the music they create. A ”small film” in the sense that it’s a low-budget Irish indie movie that never got megaplex distribution, Once is also one of the most bighearted movies of the year.
Hansard — in real life the leader of the rock band the Frames — plays a fellow who works in his father’s vacuum-repair shop when he’s not strumming his guitar for passersby and pub change. He chances to meet Irglová (neither character is given a name), a classically trained pianist without a piano. She lives in a cramped apartment with her small daughter and her mother.
At first, Once‘s shot-on-the-fly casualness makes it seem halting and amateurish (it was written and directed by John Carney, himself formerly a member of the Frames). But then, early on, there’s a scene in a music store, in which the girl sits at a showroom piano to play a bit of Mendelssohn and the guy starts teaching her one of his songs, singing in a plaintive tenor, soon followed by their tentative getting-to-know-each-other harmonies. And with that, Once takes off — and gives you goose bumps. The tune builds into a lovely, swirling ballad, and you know these two were meant for each other. (For essentially untrained actors, Hansard and Irglová are subtly expressive.) In keeping with that notion, the movie itself develops a lyric rhythm. If Once captures the magic of small-time music-making, it’s also realistic enough to depict hardscrabble lives and difficult situations that strain the couple’s relationship.
There’s a brief making-of, but the best extra is an engaging feature commentary with Hansard, Irglová and Carney. Once was shot in a mere 17 days, and Carney calls the result ”an unself-conscious musical,” referring to the way the characters don’t burst into fully formed compositions whose lyrics further the plot, but rather perform songs dictated by the few simple plot points in the movie.
There’s a marvelous section, for example, in which the duo and a few of his musician friends rent studio time to record a demo. It could have been trite, but the long scene — edited with quick, crisp cuts — captures the exhausting exhilaration of working till dawn to get a sound down on tape just so. With a similar avid precision, Once tells a sweet love story with tender passion and not a wisp of sentimentality.