Once opens with real-life singer-songwriter Glen Hansard (of “The Frames”) busking on a Dublin street corner while a pissed-up bloke pisses in an adjacent alley; if this is going to be a musical, then it sure as hell ain’t Vincente Minelli behind the camera. It turns out that Once is a musical, naturalistically shot with a shaky handheld, one that stays true to the romantic core of the movie musical and its MGM standards while stripping away its artificial pretensions, particularly its penchant for unaccompanied spontaneous singing: its characters may break into song, but they do so because they’re musicians, and they only do so with their instruments, or at least their discmen, in tow.
But you might say Once is deceptively natural as, while it may present an imperfect world, it’s unfailingly pleasant, constructing a universe in which able, willing and available musicians occupy the streets like ripe apples in an orchard, simply waiting to be plucked, and everyone—from parents to loan officers to recording engineers—is just dying to help make one’s dreams come true through support and cooperation; where all it takes to succeed is a generous helping of talent and charm. If not in its style, then at least in its story Once is a standardly romantic and fanciful musical. Hansard and Markéta Irglová, a classically-trained pianist/flower girl with an Eastern European accent, meet cute on the corner one evening when he’s banging his guitar and screaming his little head off; she’s an Eliza Doolittle figure and Hansard’s her Higgins, except he doesn’t want to tease a proper English accent out of her—though she could use one—but rather draw out her musicality.
As Rogers and Astaire expressed their feelings for one another through dance, Hansard and Irglová express their budding emotions not through a kiss—or, heaven forbid, lovemaking—but through music, through vocal harmony and guitar-piano interplay. Together, they’re two musicians for whom life is a folk opera with little room for unsung speech; when they try and explain themselves through dialogue, they fail to connect, but through their instruments they transcend the divide of spoken language (her Czech is better than her English) to find common ground in the shared vernacular of indie rock love. Over the course of a week they feel out each other’s musical styles, recruit a band of street musicians, record a CD, and then go their separate ways. It’s cute but not aggressively so, emotionally subtle and secure in its simple sweetness.
Hansard and Irglová, both non-professional actors exuding high levels of charming sincerity, aren’t your typical movie lovers: he’s hung up on an old flame and she’s the mother of a small child and married to a man back in Czech Republic, though they’re estranged. While your typical movie musical uses music to bring two innocent young lovers together, Once uses two young lovers to bring its music together; when the demo is done, the lovers split. Rather than a kiss goodbye, in keeping with non-physical character of their relationship, the parting gift is a piano, and that musical connection means more than any smooch ever could.