John Carney’s benevolent, lightly-touched Once is practically definitive indie. Made under a meager €112,000, which rounds out close to $124,000 in U.S. dollars, under the Irish Film Board, it’s as shoestring as films come. And it’s made all the better for it. Impactful in its intimacy, fragile in its raw, tender emotions and never less than engulfing in its beautifully high sung serenades, it’s a majestically, drunkenly romantic project where the romance stems from the songs, the warm Irish air and the grassroots scenery, rather than the expected romance at the forefront. To reflect upon it is to be whisked into its quiet charm, its warmhearted embrace. It’s the best kind of nostalgia.
I’ve never been to Ireland, and I’m not sure if I will ever get the chance to go. Yet, Once feels like home. It holds that same sweet, accepting vibe that only the most homegrown films can create. Every minuscule detail feels lived in, primarily because there’s barely a single detail that isn’t authentic. To witness a single frame is to visit the environment. To be engrossed in the music is to feel as if you’re there, listening to each strung chord. There’s a home video quality to the film that might’ve been distracting if done today, but under writer/director John Carney’s compellingly tender accomplishment, it adds to the beauty of it all. You barely know these assorted characters, yet you instantly associate with them, knowing full well that you’ll come to love them as our leads love each other.
Glen Hansard, as an unnamed struggling 30-something street musician, and Marketa Irglova, as a similarly unnamed pretty young Czech flower singer with an incredible voice who’s not ingrained into her adulthood years, don’t strike anyone as you average couple. Yet their chemistry is positively radiant. Their dynamic is easygoing and loving, enraptured in the natural beauty that’s around them while trying to dodge the feelings that blooming inside them. You see, beyond their age differences, Irglova’s character is married to an estranged husband, one that hangs heavily over their companionship. It’s not his fault, of course. How does he know how to impact things he’s not involved in? But nevertheless, his binding marriage to Irglova’s character provide some romantic friction between these two enormously talented musicians, and it also inspires them to not only make the most of their music but to look inward, to examine themselves and how their relationships warped and mended them beyond their tunes. That’s most definitely the case of Hansard’s character, as his ex-girlfriend haunts him throughout.
The beauty of Once doesn’t simply come from its folksy soundtrack or freeform spirit, though it’d be a fool’s errand to suggest they aren’t positively gorgeous compositions. Thankfully, the Academy agreed and awarded the haunting affecting “Falling Slowly” a much-deserved Oscar for Best Original Song. That song will always have a special place in my heart, not merely for how well it’s placed in the film, or how it develops this impartial on-screen relationship in an instant — especially in a time in my filmgoing years where I was more perspective and awoken to the power of independent cinema — but for how it forged an unexpected bond between my father, especially in a time in my teenage years when I had trouble developing honest relationships with anyone, let alone with my parents. For that alone, I will always love and cherish the simple magic of Once, but thankfully, Once is already a warmly magnificent movie on its own accord.
Indeed, Once had the kind of cultural impact only the most audacious independent filmmakers could ever dream. Beyond its Academy Award recognition, it more than quadrupled its initial budget, became a worldwide phenomenon, inspired a hit Broadway musical, sold thousands of tracks, propelled the music careers of its lead musicians, and it was sourced as giving none other than Steven Spielberg inspiration for another year of filmmaking. Those are not minor accomplishments, by any stretch of the imagination, yet the glory of Once is that, despite its major achievements, Carney’s film never feels less than quaint. There’s an eternally fruitful small-scale intimacy to the low-budget film that can’t be tampered or hampered with, no matter how much recognition it’ll receive. On its tenth anniversary, it’s just as impeccably affecting and instantly recognizable as it was before, even after many years apart.
Much like Richard Linklater’s Before trilogy or Kevin Smith’s Clerks, there’s an unrefined refinement to Once that works simply because it feels so close to its chest. The stakes are astoundingly minor, yet everything feels universally heartbreaking as it does feel swelling heartwarming. Once is the best kind of independent sensation: a completely lovable, entirely charming cinematic treat that’s just as sweet today as it was back in the day. There are some things that can’t be broken by time. Relationships fold. Days past. Memories fade. But Once is with us forever, if always in our dear old hearts.