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‘Once’ reinvents the movie musical

Director John Carney breathes fresh life into the film’s music and romance.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Forget everything you think you know about the movie musical, one of the more tried-and-true and utterly predictable genres around.

With “Once,” writer-director John Carney deconstructs it and reinvents it as something wholly new, inspired and alive.

He also breathes fresh life into the idea of screen romance with the unexpected relationship he depicts between an Irish street performer (the riveting Glen Hansard, lead singer of the Frames) and a young Czech immigrant (Marketa Irglova, who’s strikingly talented). Carney follows them over the course of a week through working-class Dublin, with intimate, verite camerawork, as they meet, get to know each other and share a love of music.

Charmingly awkward in their initial small talk, they discover they bond seamlessly when they start collaborating on his album — him on the guitar, her on the piano, their harmonies soaring and sending a chill down your spine.

No one ever bursts into song in “Once” — the tunes just evolve naturally, making you feel as if you’re a part of the process, leaving you emotionally invested in these characters and not just wowed by their performances. He tinkers with a melody or finds he’s stuck writing lyrics and asks her to help; she listens to what he’s come up with and provides some suggestions. And voila — a song is born.

(OK, so maybe they fit together a bit too perfectly on their first try, but they sound so phenomenal, you may as well surrender.)

In the most clever example of this tactic, he’s lent her a CD player to listen to one of his half-finished songs. She walks to a convenience store near her cramped apartment to buy some new batteries, pulls on a set of headphones and comes up with the words on the way home, her voice piercing the darkness and the nighttime traffic.

Here’s how subtle Carney’s craftsmanship is: You don’t even realize his characters have no names until the closing credits begin rolling. They’re just “Guy” and “Girl.”

Hansard, who isn’t a traditionally trained actor (though he did appear in “The Commitments”), has a warm, likable demeanor. Carney, formerly the bassist for the Frames, had asked Hansard to write the songs for the film and ended up making him the star, and it’s easy to see why. He’s comfortable in front of the camera, with whomever he comes into contact.

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When he straps on a guitar and starts singing, though, he’s a powerhouse — his voice can be raw and clear, impassioned and imperfect. But it always feels like you’re listening to a true, heartfelt expression of who he is. Hansard wrote or co-wrote nearly all the songs in “Once,” except for a couple that came from Irglova and a Van Morrison tune at the beginning. In theory, the folk-rock tunes comment on what’s happening in the movie, but they never seem to do so in an obvious, literal manner. They’re both driving and melancholy; they’ll change your mood.

Irglova, meanwhile, was only 17 years old when she was chosen for “Once,” and she handles herself with the confidence of a longtime pro. This was her first film and, like Hansard, she possesses a natural way about her that makes her a joy to watch, someone to root for.

This small film is a huge surprise — brilliant simply because it doesn’t try so hard to be brilliant — and it’s one of the year’s best.