Listening More Than "Once"
Hey everyone! I'm back from a fantastic trip to Minneapolis, Minnesota, where I participated in the annual conference of the Theatre Communications Group. TCG has given me a fellowship to become an affiliated writer with American Theatre magazine, and next month the first article I've written under that fellowship will be published. It's a piece I'm particularly excited to see in print, so I'll keep you updated.
Now as for music... have we talked about the soundtrack to the film "Once?" Well, I know we haven't, so let's do it.
First of all, the movie: It's an Irish film about a singer-songwriter (played by actual singer-songwriter Glen Hansard) who spends time away from his cruddy job by busking in the street. When we meet him, he's singing these beautiful, heart-tearing songs, but the only people listening are the drunks who want to steal the money from his open guitar case.
Eventually, though, the man--we never learn the characters' names--meets a woman (Marketa Irglova, also a real-life singer-songwriter) who loves the music she hears. That leads to a non-sexual relationship built on their decision to write songs together. As these shy, lonely people learn to trust one another with their music, they also learn to trust each other with their lives. The resulting film is remarkable because it depicts a type of love that is very real yet almost never depicted in art: the intense love of friendship.
That's not to say these two don't want to become lovers, but there are several reasons they can't. And instead of pushing the story toward predictable conclusions--affairs, guilt, betrayal--the filmmakers, including writer-director John Carney (a former bandmate of Hansard's), force the characters to deal with the terms they're given. Bound in a universe that tells them they can't sleep together, they find other meaningful ways of sharing their hearts.
By avoiding sex, the film finds surprising ways to tell its story. I'd say it's much more interesting and unconventional to see a "love scene" played out in a piano shop, where the man and woman sing a duet.
There's a similar energy here as in "Lost In Translation," another film with a languid pace that observes two people who care for each other but cannot sleep together.
The movies aren't the same, though, primarily because "Once" has moments of raw emotion supplied by its songs. Glen Hansard, who I'd never heard of before now but is fairly well known in Europe, is an arresting performer. The unguarded feeling in his face and especially in his voice snared me every time a song began. And Irglova offers a soft counterbalance. Her voice is pure and high, blending nicely with Hansard's, and while his screen presence is boisterous, she has a sly subtlety that makes her seem like a private thought you really want to hear.
Another crucial element of the music is how it affects the movie's tone. During songs, "Once" lifts ever so slightly out of realism, letting us know that these numbers are a representation of the character's inner lives. The effect gives the movie a touch of magic without making it overwrought.
For instance, when Irglova's character is listening to music on her Discman, she walks through a convenience store whispering potential lyrics to herself. Eventually, she starts singing the lyrics out loud, and even though she's meant to be improvising, a carefully structured song emerges. What's more, no one else even notices she's singing.
In that moment, it's easy to imagine that passers by just see a woman walking silently with a CD player. But we in the audience get to see what's going on inside her. We can see that she's moved by this music and that it is making her want to belt out with joy.
The impact of the film is retained in the soundtrack. Even without images, the music maintains its power, be it on driving rockers like "Trying to Pull Myself Away" or in Irglova's heartbroken solo lament, "The Hill."
For me, the most representative example of both the album's and the movie's success is the track "When Your Mind's Made Up." A elaborate, sweeping anthem that starts quiet and ends loud, it has a complete emotional journey, surprising turns, and authentic feeling. Hansard's wordless wail over the last minute, backed by crashing drums and Irglova's sweet harmony, is both ecstatic and devastating at the same.
That complexity makes "Once" one of the most satisfying experience I've had this year, both in the movies and in my earphones.