I’ve had a lot of electrifying experiences, personal and professional, in the twenty years I’ve been writing about the international film festivals. One of my favorite occurred at the Egyptian Theatre, at Sundance in Park City, Utah on the morning of January 20, 2007.
That was the first time I saw Once, John Carney’s beautiful low-budget Irish musical he made in collaboration with the musicians and actors Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová.
I ended up reviewing it here (Download Once review) and I put the film on my top ten list in what was admittedly an exceptionally strong year for cinema. I looked at the film again recently for a piece I’m considering about contemporary musicals, and it holds up exceptionally well. The story of a complicated and unorthodox friendship that develops between an Irish street musician and a beautiful Czech émigré Once I thought both lyrical and substantial.
Shot in Dublin over a period of two weeks for the equivalent of around $140,000 the movie was made in the free, improvisational manner of the French New Wave. It achieved a loose and spontaneous style that intertwined the immediacy of film with the rapturous first person expression of the musical. I was hooked from the moment of Hansard and Irglová’s first impromptu playing session, inside the Dublin piano store on their incandescent interpretation of their signature work, “Falling Slowly.”
That protean, direct quality is why people have responded so emphatically, not only their work but also their lives. Hansard and Irglová suggested something elusive and ephemeral. The critic Michael Atkinson perceptively compared the movie’s muted sexual dynamics to Wong Kar-wai’s In the Mood for Love.
In Once, the consummation of the relationship was not sexual though musical. It transmuted a different kind of love affair, one that if it never ignited in the conventional sense, there is no ambiguity about the intensity of their feelings for each other.
Sundance proved not an isolated act though the beginning of a phenomenon. Once played in major markets for seven months through the summer and fall of 2007 and grossed some $10 million. Hansard and Irglová won the Academy award for best song for “Falling Slowly.” The soundtrack album sold some three-quarters of a million copies.
Begun as a side act, the duet eclipsed Hansard’s own estimable Irish rock act, The Frames. Performing as The Swell Season, the title also of their debut CD named for a novel by the Czech novelist and screenwriter Josef Skvorecky, Hansard and Irglová have been on a touring blitzkrieg that has them playing larger venues such as New York’s Radio City Music Hall. Four of the songs on debut CD were reconfigured and used on the Once soundtrack.
No city illustrates their rise like Chicago. In the weeks before Sundance, the two played in intimate bars like the Hideout or as secondary acts at the Metro. In the aftermath of Once, the two played progressively larger public rooms, like the Old Town School of Folk Music, the Vic Theater and during the late summer and fall of 2008, three sold out shows at the Chicago Theatre. In the fall of 2007, I did a follow up interview with Hansard and Irglová for an awards piece in Screen. Hansard told me: “Mar and I played gigs in front of nobody here in Chicago, something like 70 people. I thought 70 people was really good. Our record [The Swell Season] with these same songs [Once soundtrack] sold 300 copies, and now it’s selling a great deal more and it’s all because of how it was presented.”
The nakedly confessional songs with their bruising lyrics of pain, dishonesty and regret are palpably autobiographical (“I think Glen writes about me because it teaches him something,” Markéta said in the interview). It makes even more visceral the connection between performer and audience. On The Set List, the Frames’ live set disc, one of my favorite cuts is “Your Face.” Toward the end, the band momentarily stops and Hansard continues hammering the haunting refrain: “And I’m going to wait for you.”
In the movie’s key scene, where she reveals she is married, Irglová’s character says in unsubtitled Czech “I love you,” to his query of whether she loved her husband. The ending of Once is exceptionally bittersweet—the swooping crane shot pulling back from her face cut with him leaving for London acknowledges their quite separate fates. Their success was mitigated, I think, on the unusual terms of their own private narrative. By falling in love off screen, they provided the very ending people desperately clamored from the movie.
Now, the love affair is, by all accounts over though the music continues. The Swell Season have released their terrific new album, Strict Joy. (The new title is named after a poem by the Irish writer James Stephens. I think one reason I like their work so much is the Skvorecky connection, one of the truly great and unfairly neglected figures of the Czech New Wave.) I ordered the deluxe version of the disc that includes a live track and a DVD. NPR streamed the new work in advance of its new release. I’ve listened to it several times, and I really like “The Rain,” “The Verb,” and “Two Tongues.”
Part of what Once a terrific film is their private history and lack of technique yielded something quite raw and emotionally revealing. The movie and their music circles and returns to a devastating theme, the Proustian realization that love is finally not just irreconcilable, but this sense that the only paradise we experience is the one that either has been taken away or lost.
The band also starts this weekend, in Milwaukee, a very ambitious world tour in support of the new disc. I saw them perform live the first time at Sundance. Since then I’ve seen them in small, intimate settings, like a movie theater during the bus tour for the release of Once to the now much bigger venues. The crowds for The Swell Season are quite different than that of The Frames. The Swell Season intermix Frames songs in their playlist, especially “Fitzcarraldo” and “Your Face,” but bigger rock anthems like “Revelate,” “The Stars are Underground,” or “Perfect Opening Line” are not a really a part of the repertoire.
The music Hansard and Irglová play is more interior and circumspect. Those poetic reveries give it a kick. As terrific as Hansard and Irglová are on camera, they are even better on stage. Their contrasts beautifully mesh. Hansard’s nakedly out front, rough-hewn volubility plays off her fragility and beauty. She’s also begun to assert her own presence and authority. Her self-possession makes her appear far older than her age. (She was a ridiculous 17 during the time of the movie shoot.) “Mar’s much more sober than me. I have a tendency to go off on me head about things. Mar will always be much more grounded,” he says.
In the past she was the skilled virtuoso content to accede to Hansard’s front man persona. The last time I saw them play, at the Chicago Theatre, she played four solo pieces, including the absolutely stunning piano piece, “The Hill.” “You sound amazing,” a woman screamed out after “I Have Loved You Wrong.”
Her two lead vocal tracks on the new CD feature that song and “Fantasy Man,” a deeply resonant and heartbreaking piece she started playing in concerts more than two years ago. (By the way, this is Markéta and her sister Zuzana performing that number. Talent and beauty obviously run in that family.) My own interests are much more aligned to film, but I’ve developed a real affinity of late for the actress/musician such as Irglová, Charlotte Gainsbourg and Zooey Deschanel.
Hansard suggested in a recent interview the future of the band is very much an open question. Even so I’m curious to see how their music evolves, and what becomes of the Frames. I’d also like to see them work in film more (Irglová was offered the female lead in a Czech/French film a year or so ago but had to turn it down because of her touring obligations.) I’m much more confident in my opinions about film, but I rely on the Justice Paul Stevens’ aesthetic on music: I can’t always define it but I know good music when I hear it.
Whatever permutations or variations, in film, concerts, the Swell Season, the Frames or Hansard and Irglová apart, this is beautiful and magnetic stuff.
(Thanks to Howard Greynolds, Susan Norget and Mike Goodridge.)