I got married in 2008. In the months leading up to our wedding, me and two of my best friends worked in secret to learn “Falling Slowly” and surprised my (now) wife with our version of it after the ceremony. Setting aside the (probably) dodgy quality of our cover, it was a moment that turned into one of those cool memories that end up getting told and retold over and over again—even among people that were there.
It’s hard to believe Once is 15 years old this year (which means I’ve been married for a long time). I’m not sure I would have ever seen it if my dad hadn’t strongly recommended it to me when it came out. But he did. And I did. And I’m glad. Not just because it came to mean something personal to me, but because it’s an amazing piece of cinema. Cinema made by people passionate about what they were creating. Passionate enough to do it on a meager budget of $150,000. And with a box office take just north of $23 million, Once is maybe one of the last great examples that proves small, human dramas can be successful.
Glen Hansard plays the Guy. By day the Guy repairs Hoovers in his dad’s vacuum shop, and by night he busks in a busy shopping district in Dublin. The Girl (Markéta Irglová) is a young immigrant flower peddler who stops one evening to listen to the Guy play. She asks him direct and personal questions about the nature of his songs, their meanings, and then asks the Guy to repair her Hoover. The two have lunch and wind up in a music store where the Guy discovers that the Girl, too, is a musician.
The Guy is still damaged goods after a bad break up, and the Girl is hiding hurts of her own. The rest of the movie is a musical journey. Pictures and music come together to tell a story where details and dialogue are left behind. The minutiae is in the songs and the pictures, the expressions on the actors’ faces. Glances take the place of minutes of dialogue. Hansard and Irglová’s songs fill in the hollow spaces, and they are powerful (“Falling Slowly” won an Academy Award for Best song, and Hansard and Irglová were nominated for two Grammy awards for their work on the film’s soundtrack). All of the songs were written by the two leads, and neither Hansard nor Irglová were accomplished actors at the time. Hansard had only been in one other movie (The Commitments) back in 1991 (I highly recommend it), and Irglová had never acted. And it’s never an issue. The two have a chemistry that directors yearn for, and it all feels natural.
The Girl encourages The Guy to record an album, leave for London, get his girlfriend back, and become a successful musician. The two collaborate along with other street musicians and create a staggering array of inspired songs. Feelings brew between the two, but Once isn’t a Hollywood movie. What transpires between the pair is real life. And real life is rarely storybook. But they can still be beautiful. And Once is a beautiful film from start to finish.