Most of the press covering Once calls the film a movie musical. Writers are quick to disclaim that characters don’t burst into song the way the old movie musicals did, but important emotional points of the story are expressed in music.
It’s not an inaccurate description, but it doesn’t paint the entire picture either. Once reminded me more of the early Duran Duran videos directed by Russell Mulcahy, where the songs became miniature movies themselves. As far as my 13-year-old self was concerned, who needed Raiders of the Lost Ark when I had "Hungry Like the Wolf"?
Music video hasn’t really tapped into that kind of cinematic sense since, not after Michael Jackson turned the form into some kind of Cecil B. DeMille canvas. Once manages to integrate that early-era music video storytelling into a larger form. Like an opera or a musical, the film’s scenes build to a point where music comes in, but instead of an aria, it’s a music video.
A number of songs featured in Once were originally recorded by the Irish band the Frames, whose lead singer Glen Hansard stars in the film. Hansard plays an unnamed broken-hearted busker working at his dad’s vacuum cleaner repair shop. A Czech street vendor selling flowers (Marketa Irglova) befriends the busker, and the two flirt with each other through the music they write and perform.
There are a few twists in the storyline that get revealed along the way, but it’s nothing too earth-shattering. In fact, the plot is pretty basic and takes a backseat to the music.
It takes a slight bit of effort to adjust to the storytelling. Less patient viewers may want the songs to hurry up so that the film can get going. Music fans, though, will most likely enjoy how the music is treated as its own character. I feel a comparison to Amadeus and Immortal Beloved coming on.
The music itself is incredible, and I like the fact Once could be considered the first indie rock movie musical. I’d heard of the Frames for years but didn’t explore their music. Hansard has an incredibly expressive voice, especially on the opening "Leave". He’s a good actor to boot — if you didn’t know he really is the lead singer for a band, you’d think Once was his big break.
Irglova’s accent is a bit thick, so it’s tougher to evaluate her delivery. But she’s just as watchable as Hansard, and they really sell the relationship between the characters. (The two stars have since become a couple.) Musically, she’s a perfect complement to Hansard’s husky voice. "Falling Slowly" is enough reason to get the soundtrack album.
Once has slowly been gaining traction since its theatrical release, with a bigger marketing campaign and a push for an Oscar, according to USA Today. My hope is for makers of both music videos and films to learn from Once. Music video can still be cinematic, and film can incorporate video into its storytelling.