So, you’ve now had three chances to hear the songs “Falling Slowly” and “When Your Mind’s Made Up.” Last August, you could have heard the pair of emotionally overwhelming tracks on The Swell Season, an album written by the Frames’ Glen Hansard and featuring the young Czech performer, Markéta Irglová. In early 2007, the two songs appeared on The Cost, the latest album by Dublin’s `other’ favorite hometown band, the Frames. These songs were originally to be part of an earlier Czech film, but the Frames’ former bassist, John Carney, had another use for them. Carney, after leaving the Frames, had since become a director, and his breakthrough film, called simply Once, premiered at the Sundance Film Festival this year. Hansard was originally employed only to write the songs for the film, revolving around an intensely emotional collaboration between two artists, but quickly replaced Cillian Murphy when he dropped out. This is what people in the film industry call a `happy accident,’ a turn of events that at first may seem unfortunate, but in the end becomes sheer genius.
A lot of times, a soundtrack can far outshine its host film, as in the case of Hackers, which spawned two volumes of electro-based dance music, or techno, or whatever the heck you want to call it. There aren’t nearly as many times when the film is great, but the soundtrack isn’t. (I wonder why that is?) Most of the time, either both suck or both are decent. In the case of Once, it turns out that both film and soundtrack are fantastic. The film is already receiving overwhelmingly positive reviews, in fact, some of the best reviews of the year, while still remaining somewhat unknown. Ironically enough, that sounds exactly like a description of one of the albums from the Frames. In the film, Glen Hansard plays a man, credited only as `Guy,’ who works in his father’s vacuum repair shop and moonlights as a street busker. This role isn’t much of a stretch for Hansard as he began busking in the streets of Dublin at the tender age of thirteen. He meets `Girl,’ played by the young Czech musician, Irglová, eighteen years his junior. The two, despite their romantic ties to other people, fall irrevocably in love, and, as corny and clichéd as it sounds, make beautiful music together. Think of the film as part Garden State, part Music & Lyrics, part Dancer in the Dark, part Girl in the Café and part Lost in Translation, and what I mean is the `best’ parts of those films.
The evidence of that music resides in the soundtrack album. “Falling Slowly,” in this context, becomes far more of an intimate and devastatingly emotional piece. It becomes somewhat reminiscent of the pairing of Damien Rice and his former waifish muse, Lisa Hannigan. “If You Want Me” captures the essence of a pair of nervous lovers taking their tentative first steps. Hansard’s lyrics perfectly encapsulate those feelings of trepidation, insecurity and desperation inherent in any burgeoning relationship. Plus, Irglová’s voice is heavenly. “When Your Mind’s Made Up” is the other `Frames’ track making its third album appearance, and deservedly so. This version, featuring Irglová’s delicate piano and a sweeping string section, is, if not superior to the other recorded versions, at least more immediate, beautifully unpolished and passionate. Hansard’s voice has never sounded better, proving that overdubbing and a lot of production work is absolutely unnecessary to make impressive music. With a budget of only 150 K, Once proves that goes for the film industry as well. The songs on the soundtrack somewhat tell the story of the movie, from opening overtures of love to the bittersweet final moments. Irish band Interference get in on the act with “Gold,” featuring more romantic overtones over jangly acoustics.
I defy anyone to keep your heart from breaking while listening to Irglová’s tear-jerking song, “The Hill.” “Fallen from the Sky,” its somewhat-companion piece by Hansard, takes on more of a bouncy and detached tone, yet still remains undeniably endearing. “Leave” is a devastating rollercoaster of a song, at first touching, then reactionary and cruel, but also entirely effective and affecting. The last few tracks all pull on the heartstrings, most of them more so by the fact of Hansard performing them on his own. But no song is more incredible than the title track from the film, featuring both its lead actors. If a song can prove that two people are interminably entwined, perfectly complementing the other, than it is “Once.” Hansard and Irglová sound beautiful together, even amidst hopeless lyrics. Despite the words, the two are obviously in love, their voices betraying their hearts. The fiery and intentionally overwrought “Say It To Me Now,” performed alone by Hansard, closes out the album, asking for that last statement of love, desperately, full of hope and yet hopeless at the same time.
It’s one thing for two musicians to find each other and create unbelievably great music because of the intense chemistry. It’s another thing altogether when two people are `put together’ and get the same result. I dare say that Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová are the best pair of love-entwined songwriters since Stevie Nicks and Lindsey Buckingham. Once is already being hailed as one of the best `music films’ ever made, but that sells it short. It’s also one of the best love stories ever written for the screen, made better by the emotional resonance of the songwriting. If this film doesn’t satisfy you with its message or its music, take heart from the real life tale of the two leads, with reports now that 37 year-old Hansard and 19 year-old Irglová are dating, to which near 36 year-old me says, hell yeah!