Review: ‘The Swell Season’ Sets Disillusionment to Music, Hits Scattered High Notes

By  · Published on October 7th, 2011

Early on in the documentary The Swell Season, its subjects sit on the floor of their tour bus and stare at a familiar movie poster, a tweaked one-sheet for the Oscar-winning Once, which cast Marketa Irglova and Glen Hansard as modified versions of their real life selves. It’s the same poster that appears throughout the documentary in various forms – on CD covers, on sheets of paper, on signs announcing their tour – yet in this quiet moment, Hansard and Irglova appearing to finally be getting their first good look at it. They kneel over it for a beat, gazing, and then they start listing all of the things that have been changed from the original photograph – Hansard and Irglova’s legs have been lengthened, Hansard’s hat has been removed and his hair has been added on, the colors of their jackets have been changed, the two have been made to look as if they may be holding hands, but Hansard is most struck by a change he can’t quite but his finger on – “they” somehow made him “more handsome.”

On the most basic level, The Swell Season is about the difficulty in dealing with a sudden rise to fame, and the strange alienation and disconnect that comes with that – what happens when “they” make you “more handsome.” But as the film charts that sudden rise, it also tracks a converse reaction that relies so much on that first ascent as to be nearly mathematical. That’s a fancy way of saying that, as Hansard and Irglova’s stars rapidly rise, their romantic relationship begins to slowly slip.

Fans of the pair’s band (the titular Swell Season) and their work in the indie gem Once were captivated twofold by Hansard and Irglova – by their charming performances (particularly those of the musical variety) and their equally as sweet real-life love story. The feature film that earned them their Oscar for Best Original Song fictionalized their story as musical (and romantic) partners, but there was truth to it, about how music can bond two people together and the way that changes both them and their creative output. Hansard and Irglova did not meet on a street in Dublin and start up a tentative singing and songwriting duo that was filmed by John Carney, but it’s not far off from the truth. Hansard and Irglova met when Hansard found himself in the Czech Republic, busking for cash, and in need of a home. He found the Irglovas, and while the film glosses over just how or why the Irgolvas took him in, they did, and eventually Hansard began to make music with their daughter, Marketa.

Hansard is older than Irglova by nearly twenty years, and she was just thirteen years old when Hansard first met came to her home. The implication is that there was always a particular spark between the two, with the unspoken thought being, as Irglova puts it somewhat haltingly, “one day I’ll be old enough to – ” And then she was. But before the two became romantically linked, they were musically linked, with the affection and the ease between them allowing the two to pen more “vulnerable” songs than Hansard was used to writing with his band, The Frames. And then there were many songs. And then there was a CD. And then, somehow, in some ways not quite explained in the film, there was Once. And then there was everything.

The film follows the pair over two years of touring around North American and Europe, peppering in copious concert footage with interviews of the two, their family, and members of their crew. The pair are clearly in awe of their sudden success, but that’s something that’s necessarily apparent when they’re on stage. It is, however, pretty clear when they find themselves in front of whole packs of fans, eager to get their pictures or their autographs, eager to spill out all sorts of praise. And that’s the crux of The Swell Season – you can feel how, even when fans are saying lovely things, it’s an alienating and bizarre experience. These scenes are the most honestly and delicately presented in the film, and they are also the most consistently cringe-worthy. It’s the assumed intimacy of these interactions that make them unnerving, the false feelings of the fans who somehow believe they have a stake in not just Hansard and Irgolva’s music, but their actual relationship.

It’s the scenes that ultimately lead the meandering Swell Season to something resembling a focused plot – the eventual end of Hansard and Irglova’s romantic relationship. It’s Irglova’s discomfort with celebrity that starts to pull her away from Hansard (who seems unable to understand her concerns with the immediate consequences of fame, even as he too has his own issues with the anxiety their success has brought into his life). Their collapse is slow, almost imperceptible until it is not, until Hansard blankly tells the camera that their romantic relationship has ended, a reveal that happens on the heels of a conversation between the two that’s the most disconnected we’ve seen them. Then Irglova is on stage, introducing their song “I Have Loved You Wrong,” and opining on love affairs that are not for this world, or at least not for this lifetime, and the music swells, and the film ends just as it was finding its way to something like truth.

The Upside: It’s required viewing for Once completists and fans of The Swell Season, who are the ones most likely to come away from the film feeling moved and satisfied, but those interested in the pressures of fame will also be able to glean some new (and personal) insights into the lives of “celebrities.”

The Downside: Moviegoers who are unfamiliar with the subjects and their careers will be left cold and possibly confused by the entire exercise. The Swell Season by no means operates as a stand-alone documentary.

On the Side: Music. Like a lot of really wonderful music.