Have you ever wondered why movies about creative people, especially musicians, touch us? Is it because many of us may not have the guts to do so and it’s interesting to watch stories of these people who have devoted their life to the language of the soul? Or is it because there’s a lot of uncertainty and it stirs up our curiosity to see what happens next? Or maybe it’s just for the love of wonderful music that makes you feel touched.
Even if you’re not a fan of musicals, you cannot deny the powerful charm of Once. Realistic, simple, no plot. It’s just a straightforward story of two people struggling with their inner issues. Meeting each other at a point in life where they inspire each other to make decisions for the better. And then they leave each other. It’s one of those stories about meeting someone at a certain point in your life when it’s necessary. You fall in love? Yes. But it’s not the forever love. It’s the transitory love that matures you.
And what ties this movie together? Music. It is the beating heart of the movie. From the beginning till the end.
Whether it’s the introduction of ‘Guy’ as a struggling musician too scared to introduce his real music to the world or his first introduction with ‘Girl’ that beautifully shows a glimpse of her tough cookie personality. Whether it’s the initial sprouting of love between them or it’s the first time they bond at the piano shop playing Falling Slowly together. Wonderful music does accompany the moments and we fall in love with them.
Undeniably, there are several moments where music forms a bridge for them to connect with one another and for the movie to connect with us, the viewers. When Guy visits Girl’s place and learns about her immigrant life troubles and family issues. Or when she visits his place and is put off by his advances, but later won over with his sincere apology and chance to make music together. When Girl sings my second favorite song of the movie, the haunting melody “If You Want Me”, at nighttime in a single continuous shot with her soft yet slightly hoarse voice glides seamlessly meeting Guy’s voice. When they visit the recording studio and Girl displays her street smarts by her successful negotiation in renting the place for a much cheaper rate. When they visit a small loans manager for financing, who reveals a surprising (and somewhat funny) musical side. When they get initially reluctant street musicians to form their band. And when the skeptical producer joking about the peculiar inexperienced band to his friend is won over by their music, particularly by the song When Your Mind’s Made Up.
Sharing vulnerability with each other is how you develop your connection. Guy and Girl are able to do that only with the help of music. Whether it’s the impromptu Broken-Hearted Hoover Fixer Sucker Guy that reveals Guy’s heartbreak pain or it’s Girl’s song, The Hills, her personal song that tells the story of her conflict with her husband and how she’s caught between her child and her husband. Guy and Girl’s problems are universal and so is their pain. Sure, they’re sharing their intimate selves with each other. But, also with us. There’s something kindred about this kind of sharing where one is touched by the art and feels less lonely. Such is the power of music in Once.
For both Guy and Girl, musicians at heart, music was their bond, their ‘hello’, and ‘goodbye’ even it was only for a few days. The poignant ending scene is all the richer when you think about the lyrics to Falling Slowly and its significance – the first song Guy and Girl had sung together which sprouted both their love and band, the song about the hopeful transitory love that just doesn’t last no matter how sad it is. A fitting song to a fitting end.
And what about the making of the movie itself? Glen Hansard, frontman of the Irish band The Frames who plays Guy and Markéta Irglová who plays Girl are both seasoned musicians. Perhaps, the realism and excellence of their acting came from their real-life love for music while their chemistry definitely stemmed from their real-life love affair. John Carney created the movie plot based on the songs that the duo had written. According to an interview by Hansard, Carney was adamant about playing Falling Slowly and When Your Mind’s Made Up twice for the movie. Carney himself used to be a bassist for Hansard’s band.
This movie may not have been the same had Cillian Murphy – Carney’s first choice for Guy – had acted. He was reluctant to act opposite the first-time actress Irglová and was doubtful whether he could sing the songs. We’ll never know how his casting would’ve turned out but I’m certainly not complaining. Thank God for John Carney who recognized the potential in Hansard playing Guy, given that he was a musician himself who’d written most of the movie’s songs and was the one who suggested Markéta Irglová, his music partner of The Swell Season at the time, for the role of Girl.
Music is the identity of both the lead protagonists. Guy may help his father with work and play covers during the day, but at night he returns to his true creative roots. On the other hand, Girl may be a struggling working-class immigrant striving to make ends meet and who doesn’t even have the luxury of owning a piano despite being a gifted piano player. Nevertheless, she’s gritty and plays one at a local piano shop and even writes her own lyrics.
At the end of the day, both triumph in their love for music. Guy successfully makes the demo record to take to London while Girl is gifted with a piano by him. Viewers get to see them getting a win and this gives them a positive nudge to expect better news for them in the future. In fact, even in Markéta’s acceptance speech, she heralded the win as a win for all struggling independent musicians to never give up and continue to chase their dream. Why? Because Falling Slowly is a song based on hope. And, for creatives, the hope of a better future is critical to keep on going.
The soundtrack is simple and has a lot of guitar strumming. The music is special and tugs at your heartstrings. The lyrics are rich with meaning, baring the soul of the two protagonists. Take Falling Slowly for example – the rock/indie song speaking of the transitory love between the two lead actors that mesmerized even the Academy voters to give the 2007 Academy Award for Best Original Song to them. Even John Carney understood the power of the song when he joked during shooting about this song winning the Oscar.
It’s hard to pinpoint what exactly makes Once such a remarkable viewing experience. It could be the simplicity of the plot and just the joy of seeing two creatives help heal each other. Or it could be the heartwarming and nostalgic music. As a modern musical, Once is unique in that all the songs just fit in so naturally and moves the story forward. Music, indeed, is the fabric of this movie.
It is so beloved and has been so impactful that there’s even a 2011 Tony Award winning musical on it.
One just can’t deny the powerful contribution of music to Once.