music reporter

Character-based 'Once' charms as it grooves

With more genuinely magic moments in its 88-minute running time than most summer blockbusters can muster in 21/2 hours, the Irish indie sensation "Once" is demonstrating yet again that ear-shattering sound effects and computer-generated imagery are no match for good old-fashioned storytelling.

The Fox Searchlight film has grossed more than $7 million in limited release since its May bow and is generating the kind of positive word-of-mouth that could turn it into the very definition of a sleeper hit. The low-budget musical, which chronicles a tentative romance that develops between a struggling Dublin street musician (Glen Hansard of the Irish band the Frames) and a young, nearly destitute Czech pianist (Marketa Irglova), is a rough-hewn portrait of two impossibly endearing characters brought together by their mutual love of music. Awash with understated charm from the first scene, much of the film's success can be attributed to its two leads, both of whom are acting neophytes.

"(Director) John Carney said to me, 'I'd rather have two musicians who can half act than two actors who can half sing," says Hansard, who wrote or co-wrote (with Irglova) all of the songs featured in the film. "He said, 'It's so obvious because you wrote these songs.' I was kind of freaked out about it."

Adds Irglova, who admits that acting didn't come as easily as music: "The whole thing came together very naturally, (which) was great because it was very spontaneous. I'm not a good liar; that's the bottom line. I'm a horrible liar, and acting is kind of like lying."

Says Hansard, "It's like telling the truth about things that didn't happen."

But as guileless and charming as the two leads are, the film's success, like that of any musical, rests squarely on the shoulders of the songs. It is here that "Once" soars, achieving a kind of hybrid status as something between a traditional musical and an intimate concert film, with one spare, soulful tune after another arriving naturally and without fanfare. Indeed, there are no elaborate set pieces — instead, the songs are woven into the film effortlessly, concerned more with revealing the characters' inner lives than with propelling the film to its next plot point.

"John called this a musical from the beginning, and I have to say we resisted," Hansard says. "We felt that if there is a song in the film, it has to happen naturally, within the context of real life."

In fact, Hansard and Irglova were so adamant about keeping the film as authentic as possible that they were not shy about voicing — and protecting — their vision of it.

"At one point we were shooting on the street and someone asked what kind of film we were making, and John said, 'It's a romantic comedy,' " Irglova says. "We both said, 'What!?' "

Adds Hansard: "We're film fans, you know? So we were kind of terrified we were making a (traditional) romantic comedy. I kept saying to John: 'Be brave, just be brave. Don't break. We've got nothing to lose.' "
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