Earnest Goes to Dublin

The way I see it, there’s two different groups of people who wouldn’t be completely bowled over by the movie Once:

  1. Musicians living in Dublin, who wouldn’t see what the big deal is, and
  2. Unholy creatures cursed to walk the earth for eternity after having their souls ripped from their rotting corpses.

I’d been hearing about the movie for what must be months, since it’s gotten nearly universal praise, an Oscar nomination for its song “Falling Slowly” (the second best song in the movie), and fairly frequent breathless write-ups in Entertainment Weekly claiming it was impossible not to like it.

So I had a combination of high expectations and the feeling I’d get around to watching it eventually. I expected a painfully earnest, small and sensitive indie film about two singer/songwriters who find each other against all odds. Two very different people, joined together by their music, their hearts would soar onto the screen, the strings of their acoustic guitars pulling the audience into the screen and casting a spell of heartfelt enchantment on young and old.

The funny thing is: that’s pretty much exactly what it is, and it totally works.

It’s filmed not like a musical, or even an indie-film Sundance-ready romance, but as a “behind the music”-style documentary. In a making-of documentary on the special features, the director says that he didn’t want actors who could half-sing, but singers who could half-act. He got better than that, because their performances are completely believable and their musical performances are astounding.

The scene where the two stars perform “Falling Slowly” in a music shop is pretty much the defining scene of the movie, but my favorite is “If You Want Me.” The girl (both characters are unnamed in the movie) walks back from a corner store in the middle of the night, in her pajamas, where she’d gone to buy batteries for a CD player so that she could listen to the guy’s music while she wrote the lyrics for it. It’s the closest the movie gets to a traditional movie musical, while still feeling so natural and so genuine that it fits in perfectly.

What finally completely won me over was a scene at a party, where all the guests are required to perform songs for each other. Now, any claim I could make to knowing what life in Dublin is really like, would be hopelessly false — I spent a total of four days in the city, visiting only the most tourist-laden places, and I was half-full of Guinness the entire time. But it’s what I want Dublin to be like — dark rooms packed with indiscriminately friendly people sharing drinks and some of the most incredible music you’ll ever hear.

In another part of the making-of documentary, Glen Hansard says that he and his costar, Marketa Irglova — who recorded an album in 2006 that provides several of the songs in the movie — were friends, so the most difficult parts were acting as if they’d just met. My favorite quote from the documentary is when he describes the casting; he says he recommended Irglova for the part because he knew she could act, only because she can do everything else so well.

You seldom get the chance to see the characters’ relationship as anything but genuine, since it’s so simple and straightforward. And there’s absolutely no question that their music is genuine — if I had just heard it, I might’ve dismissed it as overwrought Coldplay-style pseudo-folk pop. But when you see how music just seems to flow out of Irglova as if it were simply another language, and when you see the passion for these songs played out on Hansard’s face, it strips away any sense of artifice.

I have only two complaints about the whole thing: first, that they overused the song “When Your Mind’s Made Up,” when there are at least three other songs in the movie I would’ve preferred to hear more of. Second, there’s only one false moment in the entire movie, when the gruff recording engineer at a studio has dismissed our plucky band as talentless oddballs, but is quickly won over by the passion of their music. But both of these are nitpicks, brief and barely perceptible flaws that keep the movie just short of perfect.

It was a perfect time for me to watch this movie, because I’ve been getting more and more discouraged at the state of pop culture lately. The internet is a hateful place, and spending too much time on it has a corrupting cynical influence — to the point where you could even read a Pulitzer Prize-winning book about a father’s relationship with his son and the nature of goodness, and just start picking out faults in it. I was starting to wonder if it’s even possible to make an earnest, sincere movie anymore, without its getting dismissed as schmaltz. As it turns out, it is possible, and the result is amazing.