- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 24, 2007

“Once” professes to be a “modern-day musical,” yet somehow that categorization doesn’t do it justice. Yes, the Irish-made film is a contemporary human drama that uses song to propel its story forward — but unlike the glitzy, self-conscious flicks we typically associate with the musical genre, this one is subtle and unassuming, easy and aching, raw and realist.

There aren’t any high-budget dance numbers, nor are there any “Grease”-types who seem like normal folks until they magically unleash beautifully belted vocals at some opportune moment. Instead of forcing things in such ways, “Once” writer-director John Carney (“November Afternoon,” “On the Edge”) integrates music more organically — by making his protagonists two humble musicians.

As a result, he’s able to showcase some lovely singer-songwriter handiwork without ever erecting those barriers that separate dialogue from ditty and, thus, audience from characters.

It helps the filmmaker’s cause that his stars are real-life musicians, and that they have a rapport with one another as well as with the director himself. Before venturing into his current craft, Mr. Carney was the bassist for an Irish rock band called the Frames.

The lead singer of that group, Glen Hansard, assumes the film’s frontman role as Guy, a likable fellow who busks on Dublin’s streets when he’s not being handy around his father’s vacuum repair shop.

One night, Girl, an Eastern European (Frames contributor Marketa Irglova), wanders past his sidewalk singalong and strikes up a conversation. It turns out she’s a skilled pianist, and ever so slowly, these two music lovers develop a professional partnership and friendship tinged with sexual tension.

Although Guy keeps trying to get “closer” to Girl, she keeps him at arm’s length; she’s got a child and an estranged husband to worry about, and to be fair, Guy also has baggage in the form of an ex he can’t get out of his head — or his lyrics.

Mr. Carney doesn’t hold back from exposing all the intimate, awkward details of their relationship — from Guy’s failed attempts to bed Girl to her mid-melody meltdown — and the helmer does so with a pace and style that evoke Richard Linklater’s lauded “Before Sunrise.” In both flicks, the characters aren’t revealing any more to one another than they are to the cameras, which makes it feel like we’re right there with them.

Shaky hand-held shots reinforce the sense of a voyeuristic, home-movie perspective, while Mr. Hansard and Miss Irglova’s melodies seep into the viewer’s consciousness in ways that images and spoken words alone cannot.

A few snags hold us up — like Girl’s manifold (and jarring) repetitions of the statement “I have to go” and derivatives. But we’ll let this and other tiny blips slide just this “Once” — only because of the sheer power and beauty of Mr. Carney’s contemporary urban fairy tale.

****

TITLE: “Once”

RATING: R (language and some mature themes)

CREDITS: Written and directed by John Carney. Music by Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova.

RUNNING TIME: 88 minutes

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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