Music and movies have frequently gone together. While cinema loves a good musical, often musicians have tried to make the move to the silver screen, and cinematic stories themselves have tried to capture the life of a musician through works of fiction or Oscar-calibre biopics. For Music in the Movies, Set the Tape will explore musical biopics, the mixed successes of attempts to make musicians movie stars, and tales that revel in the wonder of music and lyrics.
There’s always something wonderfully satisfying about a small-statured movie that achieves success above and beyond anything that was expected of it. Once is very much the type of meet-cute, small scale romantic drama that plays massively at film festivals and with lovers of independent cinema, but which you may not expect to leave a massive footprint behind: and yet it did exactly that.
It found an audience that fell in love with it. It delivered a soundtrack for the ages, and managed to continue to find new life when it was adapted for the stage and became a hit show on Broadway. Even Steven Spielberg was on record as being a fan. If you need any reminder of just how popular it got, its two stars even managed to return to their characters briefly for an appearance on The Simpsons, in a manner that felt affectionate while still managing to gently lampoon the film and their characters.
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It’s not the type of musical biopic or musical flavoured film that has been featured in Music in the Movies so far, where fame and fortune have found their way into the narratives of so many of the stories covered in this series, even the ones that are about fictionalised characters. Once has no intention of seeing what happens when fame and fortune come to those who lose themselves in the wonder of songwriting and crafting music. It has more romantic concerns in mind. It’s the first of three appearances in Music in the Movies for the Irish director John Carney and his bittersweet blends of musical, romance and characters finding themselves through the wonders of music itself. Here is a filmmaker and storyteller who captures love in a way that many other filmmakers can only dream of.
To get deeply personal for a second, I adore this film so, so much. Not only for what it does well but also for the fact that it takes place in a setting that I am all too familiar with. I don’t live in Dublin, or even come from there, but I have set foot on those streets so many times, and part of the joy in watching Once is in noticing and pointing out streets and parts of its world where I have been so many times myself. It’s a novelty that I’m not used to since Ireland is seldom captured with such cinematically romantic language.
On top of being a wonderfully crafted and delicate love story, it’s also a production that feels incredibly, evocatively Dublin. The capital city of Ireland has never been captured on screen with such a low-key vibrancy as it has been here, and there is a naturalism to Carney’s direction and ability to capture the city that feels raw and natural.
It doesn’t come as a surprise in any way to learn that the film was made on such a shoestring budget that it ended up being produced in an almost guerrilla-style fashion, with Carney reportedly not even obtaining permits to film in the city, and using long lenses so that ‘extras’ on the street wouldn’t realise they were being filmed. It gives the entire film realistic energy that makes it play a million miles away from the more sanitised romances that one would expect from a Hollywood production.
That same attitude goes towards the improvisational nature of the scenes between its two leads, Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova, which strike a balance between capturing a tentative romance that doesn’t need the type of crowd-pleasing kissing scenes or proclamations of love that one would expect. Yes, there is the piano as a parting gift, which is perhaps the only concession the film makes towards any type of formal declaration of one’s own feelings, but Carney never loses sight of the tone he strikes so wonderfully in the preceding eighty minutes, and the only thing one can do is weep in a bittersweet moment despite oneself.
The chemistry between Hansard and Irglova is wonderful, the type of once-in-a-lifetime chemistry on the big screen that feels like something impossible to capture but which it does to a heartbreaking degree. The music and the songs they compose together work wonders. Without the soundtrack, the film may very well still work, but it works even better when it has the delicately cathartic brilliance of ‘Falling Slowly’ being written and sung before your very eyes, in what is one of the all-time great cinematic moments of the 2000s.
The film became a small phenomenon upon its release, and scored award nominations and an adoring fanbase. Even the stage show that is based on the film (which I managed to catch at the Pantages Theatre in Los Angeles) managed to recapture the air of the film magnificently, but like anything original, it’s the film that started it all that is the key part of the magic. Following the release and success of Once, Carney’s career has gone from strength to strength with films that have recaptured the lyrical tone on a bigger budgeted canvas; all without losing sight of what it was that made Once a wonderful piece of work in the first place.
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Begin Again is his most Hollywood film to date, boasting an all-star cast but which also features a memorable and catchy plethora of ‘singing on the street’ moments; while Sing Street was a return to his Irish roots, and with it one of the all-time great modern teen films. As we’ll see with his future entries for Music in the Movies, he has a profound ability to use songs, music and cinematic language in a way to create truly emotive pieces of work. Even Begin Again, his most ‘Hollywood’ production with its A-list cast feels like a none more Carney concoction.
Yet, there is something that remains beautifully low-key about Once. There’s a one of a kind feel to it that gives it an elusive brilliance that has allowed it, sixteen years after its release, to retain a powerful hold on you anytime you view it. It’s a cliché to say it, and to use the word in question, but it remains a lovely and heartfelt masterpiece, the likes of which we never see enough of anymore.