If you love musicals but hated Chicago and Dreamgirls, you may want to try writer-director John Carney's Once, which has found a whole new way of putting a song in our hearts. Well, not a whole new way, but this lovely little Irish film, which follows a pair of struggling musicians around while they fall in and out of harmony, is much more than a low-rent Rent. It's a delicate love story in which most of the emotion is conveyed through the music. Modern audiences flinch when actors suddenly burst into song, but what if the actors are playing people who, because it's what they'd like to do for a living, are forever bursting into song? Isn't that one way of keeping it real? Like 42nd Street, Once is a backstage musical, except the stage, in this case, is Dublin.
And not a Dublin that's ready for its close-up, Mr. DeMille. The movie opens with a busker (Glen Hansard) who's set up shop on the sidewalk, his guitar slung over his shoulder, the case open in front of him. But a street kid grabs it and takes off running, and the busker has to chase him halfway across town, after which the kid, completely winded, hits him up for some spare change. Thus is life for an itinerant musician, even one as talented as this guy, whose name we never learn but who writes all his own songs - love ballads, mostly - and delivers them with the bleeding-heart candor of Damien Rice. Alas, nobody seems to notice that there's a potential recording star in their midst, except for a Czechoslovakian émigré (Marketa Irglova) whose name also remains a mystery but who, we soon learn, is a singer-songwriter herself.
Hansard and Irglova are actual musicians who've even recorded a CD together, and that, it turns out, was a stroke of genius on the part of Carney, who gets naturalistic performances out of each of them. Hansard isn't quite what we expect a leading man to be; he just seems like a really nice guy who puts everything into his songs. But there's a gleam in his eye, and the songs, which tend to build in intensity, then fall off, then build again, bare his soul so completely that he might as well be James Dean. Irglova is a trickier proposition. Her features don't quite gel, and she seems to be holding part of herself in reserve. But so does her character, so it makes sense. And when she and Hansard sing together, their voices blend beautifully, hers gently supporting his.
Carney allows the songs the time to work their magic, and they turn into full-fledged performances set in a music store, a recording studio, a bedroom. One scene consists of Irglova's character walking back from a convenience store where she bought batteries for her portable CD player. The music, piped into her ears, fills the movie theater with sound, and it's like we've been made privy to her thoughts. "If You Want Me," "Falling Slowly" - you could piece together the story from the titles alone, and certainly from the songs alone. And what you'd get is a soulful ballad that builds in intensity, then falls off, then builds again, then falls off again, the denouement both sweet and sad. Carney may not have reinvented the musical, but he's stripped it to its bare essentials: a guy, a girl and the air that vibrates between them.