Wednesday, Jan. 30, 2008

Once

(Fox Searchlight)

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Most films about musicians have such overly determined narratives that they might as well be episodes of VH-1’s “Behind the Music.” And when the actual craft of making music enters the story, viewers often get the dubiously valuable experience of, say, Jamie Foxx imitating Ray Charles.

In Once, a fictional story that feels more real than most biopics out now on DVD, the musicians can actually play, sing and write: Glen Hansard normally leads the Frames, a fine Irish rock band; Markta Irglov is a young Czech piano and guitar talent who recorded a 2006 album, The Swell Season, with Hansard.

Here, they essentially play hardscrabble versions of themselves—Hansard a street musician working at his father’s vacuum-cleaner-repair shop, Irglov a menial worker who regularly stops by a music store on lunch break so she can use a piano there. They meet, form a friendship and then collaborate.

For untrained actors, they transmit considerable emotion, with Hansard’s lucidly watery gaze indicating badly hidden heartbreak, and Irglov’s caution undermining her willfulness. Yet when he stands on the street and sings most intensely when no crowd is there to hear, and when she plays him a passage of Mendelssohn, they discover riches beyond their means.

The question of what their collaboration will produce runs parallel to the question of whether they’ll fall in love. As they learn more about each other, the music becomes more intimate: The distant, graceful balladry of “Falling Slowly” gives way to the closeness of “If You Want Me,” which in turn fades to the bruised, increasingly loud hope of “When Your Mind’s Made Up.”

Filmed inexpensively but with passion by writer and director John Carney (a former member of the Frames), Once captures the progression from wariness to anticipation with an absolute conviction that is equal to its portrayal of the progression from rehearsal to final take. It’s a love story in which hearts express themselves best, and most ardently, when they translate their feelings into song.