I will borrow a phrase I saw in one review – Once is the anti-Chicago of movie musicals. It was shot on a minuscule budget – I would guess it cost about as much to make this movie as it cost to make one of Catherine Zeta-Jones’ lesser garments in Chicago.
Even referring to Once as a movie musical is a bit tricky, since the movie does not have people breaking out into choreographed song and dance. The thing is, it’s a movie about musicians, and these musicians play their songs on street corners for spare change; they play their songs for one another; they play their songs when they’re by themselves. Ultimately, they go into a studio and record a demo album together, so all of the music occurs in a completely real-world manner.
Since this isn’t a formal review for formal publication, I won’t bother naming most of the performers or other people involved in the making of Once. Suffice it to say that I’ve never heard of most of them and I daresay there’s a good chance you haven’t either, with the possible exception of Glen Hansard, who plays the male lead in the film. Mr. Hansard is a very successful recording artist in Great Britain, though he isn’t so well known over here. The film was made in Ireland, primarily with Irish actors. In fact, even though I’ve done a great deal of Irish theater and worked with a lot of Irish performers, it took me a few minutes to get my ears tuned into the dialect. This was particularly true in the case of the lead female character. The character (and presumably the actress playing her) is a Czech immigrant, so her accent is a fascinating mix of Czech, British, and Irish.
Another adjustment one must make as an audience member in viewing this film has to do with its visual style. It is mostly shot with hand-held cameras (the jumpiness of which was a considerable distraction to my friend beside me). The dialogue is mostly recorded live rather than looped, and it is mostly shot using available light, except in certain interior and nighttime shots. There is one extended nighttime shot in which one is taken mentally out of the picture because it is so painfully obvious that someone is trotting along with a portable light, trying to keep the actor’s face illuminated.
The movie very much has its charms, which I realize I haven’t focused on yet. Its story is a simple one, reflected in the fact that the two leads are referred to in the credits as simply Guy and Girl. I was not at all surprised to note in the credits that the two of them actually wrote the songs that their characters write and sing in the movie; they sing them with a commitment and connection that strongly suggests they might be singing their own compositions, and indeed they are.
I want to shift the focus of this essay right now and talk about a phenomenon I have dubbed the “Crying Game Syndrome,” though I could just as well have called it the “Four Weddings and a Funeral Syndrome.” Those were both utterly unheralded movies that ended up getting great word of mouth and turned into unexpected box office gold. I noticed a certain tendency of audience reactions with both of them. It went something like this: The people who saw them when they first came out went into the theater with modest expectations and walked out of the theater unexpectedly delighted. Their word of mouth brought in the next wave of viewers, many of whom walked in with pretty high expectations. Now I very much liked both of those films, but we’re not talking about Raiders of the Lost Ark or Spiderman here; we’re talking about relatively modest, quiet films that are mostly searching for quiet places in the hearts of their viewers. To walk into such a film expecting rampant, awe-inspiring brilliance is to be set up for disappointment. Additionally, that kind of word of mouth can often cause people to see a type of film that just isn’t their cup of tea, that they would normally not choose to see if they hadn’t heard such wonderful things about it. And while that can lead to an audience member discovering that they like something new, it can also lead to a bad match of audience member and film style.
In the case of The Crying Game, I went the day after it opened, having heard very little about it, and I felt blown away. Most of the audience that night quite obviously felt the same way. One could feel the vibe in the air as we walked out of the theater; complete strangers were discussing details of the film with one another. The people I knew who saw the film a month or two later tended to be pretty lukewarm about the whole thing, for what I’m sure were some of the reasons cited above. In the case of Four Weddings and a Funeral, which was the movie that made Hugh Grant a star, I saw the movie a few months after it opened, by which time it was getting quite the buzz (it ultimately received a Best Picture Oscar nomination). I enjoyed it immensely, but I will confess that I had to remind myself early on to take it on its own terms and forget about the hype.
So we come back to Once. It is a sweet little film, but its style is kind of gritty and unpolished. It has none of the heavily produced sheen of, say, Chicago or Moulin Rouge. The characters mostly have thick accents that would surely put off many an American moviegoer. If that sounds a little condescending, I can't apologize. And (I’m going to word this carefully so as not to spoil anything), while the movie does have a happy ending, it’s not the kind of happy ending a typical Hollywood film would have. Some critics have already tagged this as one of the year’s best films. I don’t know if I’m prepared to join that chorus. I think such talk crosses over from mere hype into utter hyperbole. I know that “hype” has a root connection to “hyperbole” but the two words have rather different meanings. I also think it’s just possible that this film may serve to inspire other low-budget musicals; one normally doesn’t even consider music if the budget is small, but these folks have shown that it can be done if one is willing to deal with one’s limitations head-on.
Postscript— Just to be clear, I LOVED the movie Chicago! I saw it in the theater and have seen it several times since on the DVD that sits in my entertainment center.