Once more, with feeling 

It's a spring afternoon and the gray slush of a Michigan winter has suddenly surrendered to a lush, inviting green. And the stars and director of the new press-darling film Once have the look of antsy elementary school students gazing lovingly out the window at an inviting swing set. The trio has been cooped up all day in a posh suburban hotel suite in Bloomfield Hills, downing vitamins and fruit juice to fend off a collective case of the sniffles, while answering questions about their heartfelt, engrossing indie-rock musical romance. Press-tour fatigue is, admittedly, a high-class problem to have, but it is a real factor here. And it's especially tough to keep on point as the sun's warming rays continue to cascade in from the patio. So conversations drift off on extended tangents about very pop things like Columbo, or A Hard Day's Night and then move to the Dublin transit system, before returning to, um, the topic at hand.

Director-writer John Carney is refreshingly blunt about their Once press tour: "We've sort of reached the point of the tour where we've stopped giving a shit."

That's the kind of honesty that gives publicists ulcers. But it's also a quip that captures perfectly the earnest emotion and scruffy reality of the movie. And the trio's momentary, playful twitchiness has absolutely nothing to do with how they feel about the film itself.

Shot on a minuscule budget in just 17 days on the busy streets of Dublin, Once is both a humble little slice of life, and an audacious, genre-changing experiment. It's a musical, but not in the overblown, glittery Moulin Rouge sense, and in a certain way it's a comedic romance, but not in a dippy-cute Hugh Grant and Drew Barrymore way.

The film stars Glen Hansard, leader of the big-in-Europe Irish band the Frames, and his real-life collaborator (and first-time actress) Marketa Irglova as an unlikely duo united through the simple beauty of making music together.

He's a struggling street performer, strumming out Van Morrison covers for spare change, saving his own gorgeous, swooning ballads for the quieter times of slower traffic. (It's art imitating life: Hansard quit school as a young teen and began street-busking, which led to a demo and a deal with Island Records.) She's a young mother with a hidden passion for song who becomes his accidental muse and partner in recording a possibly life-altering studio demo.

The music in Once is presented naturally. There are no production numbers, just spontaneous writing and recording sessions, street-corner strumming or tape playbacks, but the tunes set the tone and carry much of the movie's emotional payload. It's all so elegant in construction and so deceptively simple in presentation that it feels both comforting and yet like something new. And folks are taking notice.

Once won of the World Cinema Audience award at this year's Sundance Film Festival, and the buzz about it has been percolating ever since. The reviews have so far been almost rapturous, with an impressive 97 percent-positive rating on the review compendium website Rotten Tomatoes, with outlets such as Village Voice and Rolling Stone gushing effusively.

Part of the film's immediacy comes from the happy accident of its birth. Carney was actually a member of the Frames' first incarnation back in the early '90s. Years later Carney called on his old pal Hansard to compose songs for Once, which he was writing at the time. While Carney searched for a lead actress who could also sing and play piano, Hansard had a flash of inspiration. "I knew Marketa from playing music with her, so I recommended me friend," Hansard says. "John met her and she got the job."

After the original lead actor for the film dropped out, the logical next step for Carney was to cast Hansard, who, along with his busking experience, had some previous acting credits. Hansard played guitarist "Outspan Foster" in Alan Parker's 1991 cult classic The Commitments. He was well received in the role, but hadn't rushed to take on more acting gigs since.

The singer-songwriter denies rumors that he disliked The Commitments or the process of shooting it. "It wasn't the filmmaking experience so much as the decade of press questions about it afterward," he says.

Hansard's the rare sort of rock 'n' roller who's devoted to the music, not celebrity — the band's records are thoughtful and song-driven — but his laconic disposition and easy charisma are evident onscreen. It didn't take too much effort to get him in front of the camera again.

"I'm not really interested in being an actor," Hansard says, "but playing a character not dissimilar to me self and working with such good friends just felt very organic."

Such intimacy was a bonus for Carney as well, who found working with his pals to be a rewarding and less-pretentious change of pace. "I like it," Carney says. "You don't have to translate everything into a third language, which you have to do with actors, who can be delicate. Me, I'm more direct. I'll say 'You were shit in that take' and Glen doesn't mind so much."

The camaraderie shines on the screen, and can be heard when Hansard and Irglova play together as their musical side project The Swell Season. Even her Czech accent has been peppered with just the merest hint of an Irish brogue.

Come what may, the pair will keep playing, and take the newfound attention of movie stardom gracefully.

"We're enjoying it," Hansard says. "We don't know what's going to happen to it, and in a way it doesn't matter. It's got that lovely atmosphere about it."

So it's onward with the movie press junket, which feels like an actual concert tour, particularly when the duo breaks out the acoustic guitars and performs a few of the film's songs. Then it's back on the tour bus, off to another town and to chase that elusive sunlight that's been taunting them all day.


Once opens Friday, May 25, at the Birmingham 8, 211 S. Old Woodward Ave., Birmingham; 248-644-3456.

Corey Hall is film critic for Metro Times. Send comments to letters@metrotimes.com.

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