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Irish-Indie Musical Soars

Winner of the World Cinema Audience Award for Dramatic Film at the 2007 Sundance Film Festival, Once is an indie-Irish musical. Shot over 17 days cinéma vérité style with handheld cameras and telephoto lens on a modest, $130,000 dollar budget by writer/director John Carney (On the Edge, November Afternoon), Once is a marvel of indie filmmaking. Minus the song-and-dance numbers moviegoers tend to associate with musicals, Once spins a straightforward, simple love story about a street musician and a Czech immigrant finding common ground through their shared love of music. Sometimes simple and straightforward is good, sometimes simple and straightforward is very good, and sometimes simple and straightforward is superb.

Once is constructed around a series of meetings between the unnamed lead characters, Guy (Glen Hansard), and Girl (Markéta Irglová). Guy's a busker or street musician. To earn a living, he works part-time as a vacuum cleaner repairman in his father's shop. During the day, he covers songs by popular performers. At night, he returns to the streets to perform his own songs. No one cares much. That changes one night when a passerby, the unnamed Girl, stops and listens. They talk. An immigrant from the Czech Republic, the Girl lives with her mother and three-year old daughter. She also has a vacuum cleaner badly in need of repair. The Guy and the Girl agree to meet the next day. They begin to write, rehearse, and eventually record the songs they've worked on together in a marathon session.

On it's own, how Once came together is a compelling one. In the early 90s, writer/director John Carney played bass for the Frames, a popular Irish band. Carney left the Frames in 1993 to become a filmmaker, but remained close friends with the Frame's frontman, singer/songwriter/guitarist Glen Hansard. At thirteen, a restless Hansard quit school to become a busker. Seven years later, he founded the Frames with several friends. Only a year later, Hansard took a small, but pivotal, role in Alan Parker's 1991 adaptation of Roddy Doyle's The Commitments. When Carney drafted a screenplay centered on a street musician as the lead character, he naturally turned to Hansard to write and perform the songs.

As fascinating as Once's backstory might be (and it is), it wouldn't mean much if the final result wasn't particularly good. Luckily, Once is better than good, it pulls you into its seemingly simple romantic storyline through the characters as they tentatively reveal themselves through their musical collaboration and through Hansard and Irglová's naturalistic performances. Back in the day, when the Hollywood musical was a living, breathing genre, song-and-dance routines replaced dialogue and character interaction, Once, however, stays grounded in the real world; the songs and performances arise organically from the characters, expressing their troubled inner lives through music. And all they need is each other to set that creativity in motion. By the last virtuoso crane shot, Once is far more poignant and satisfying than anything likely to come out of the Hollywood dream factory this year.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars