The Oscar ceremony is over, now a week clear. For serial filmgoers like yours truly, it’s a sorrowful moment, the final vapors of a filmgoing year. Once the curtain goes down on Jon Stewart, it’s time to let go of those films that for 14 months you have lived, loved, rallied to, and cherished. It’s as though February begins with a Groundhog Day and ends with another, one with the groundhog always seeing his shadow, allowing the season to pass gracefully.
This means the seasoned filmgoer finally realizes what movie he most hates to see drift into the past. For me this year, that film might be the Irish musical and cinematic brief encounter Once. The Assassination of Jesse James might be the most brilliant. No Country for Old Men might be the most respected. Zodiac, the most meticulously crafted, There Will Be Blood, the most ambitious, Michael Clayton the most solid. But Once is the most loved.
That became clear with the wave of good feeling launched by its win in the category of Best Original Song, for the heavenly “Falling Slowly.” The victory set off a wave of celebration in film lovers unequaled by any other choice. Its low-budget, no-star origins – it was made using a pair of musician non-actors for $150,000 in 17 days – played into deep truths that every film lover wishes to believe – that imagination and humanity are the First Things of Music and Filmmaking. In a deeply cynical, dangerous age, here is a film that rewards believing.
The genius of director John Carney’s guerilla creation is that it saves the musical from its burden of gluttony. The production values and razzmatazz disappear in favor of the elegant simplicity of the music. Once doesn’t even bother with the adornment of names. Guy strums a guitar on a Dublin street corner. Girl hears him play and falls in love with his music. Girl plays music, as well. Guy is lovesick. Girl is lonely in a new land. Guy and Girl make music to temper and transcend their sorrows. Girl gives Guy the encouragement to fulfill his musical dreams. Guy and Girl sing. And sing. And sing beautifully.
The level of biographical verisimilitude between the film’s busker and star Glen Hansard, lead singer of the Irish band The Frames, is palpable. In some ways, it’s a condensed biography. Like his character, Hansard really did, at a time, play music on the streets of Dublin. He did assemble his band from a group of street performers. Most importantly, he really does make music with a precocious Czech female musician, played here and in real life by the teen-ager Marketa Irglova. And while Hansard and Irglova apparently were not a couple until after the shoot, one senses that was a temporary inconvenience of age. We suspect that much like their characters, they simply had not acted yet on their rising affections. And because of that reserve in both movie and life, those affections find their only expressible form in the music that they, and their characters, create.
None of this would matter if the songs weren’t extraordinary. But low-budget films run on blessings. “Falling Slowly” is an anthem of lost love seeking to relocate its bearings. “If You Want Me” (aka The Bunny Slipper Song) finds transcendent joys from a tough situation. The soundtrack album reveals that the best of the lot may be “The Hill,” an emotionally haunting story from Irglova.
Yet for all the appreciation wrung from the music, it’s still a film, and an excellent vessel. Like a great punk tune, Carney has freed the modern musical from its Broadway theatricality and staid professionalism and restored it to its roots of spontaneity and emotion. It was Carney’s dogged determinism that shuffled the project through to the end. That sense of purpose pervades the film, and makes it one built to last, well past the Oscars, and well past this age.