"Once" is a wee slip of a movie, 85 minutes long and notably light on plot. Guy meets girl, guy writes a few songs with girl, guy and girl try to figure out what to do about their mutual attraction. We never learn their names, the movie's that basic.
Yet there are more emotions repressed and then sung out in this transcendent new Irish film than in a year of blockbusters, and in its brief running time, writer-director John Carney does something both profound and unexpected: He reinvents the movie musical as a genre of swooning rock 'n' roll realism.
Say again? OK: "Once" is the first rock musical that actually makes sense. People don't burst into song in this movie because the orchestra's swelling out of nowhere. The guy and the girl are working musicians -- or they'd like to be, if they could make a living at it -- and they're played by working musicians: Glen Hansard of the Dublin-based group The Frames and the Czech singer-songwriter Marketa Irglova .
The performances unfold in well-lit music shops at lunch hour, in recording studios, on double-decker buses, in apartments late at night. Most movies cut away after a few strums, but Carney settles in for the long take and you suddenly realize this is the musical number. This is how these inarticulate people speak.
If you know your movie history, maybe you recall that musicals started this way: as Depression-era backstagers, with Ruby Keeler kicking into a Busby Berkeley dance routine because it was part of the show she and Dick Powell were rehearsing. "Once" actually resurrects that hoariest of old genre cliches, the scene where the couple take a break from performing, sit at a battered piano, and share a tune. It's the only form of courtship the two know, and it underscores that life's already a musical if you're a musician.
The Depression analogy is apt, too, because Carney sets the film in a rough but openhearted Dublin, the sort of city where every junkie knows your name and where even the loan officer's a frustrated musician. The hero works at his father's vacuum cleaner repair shop and busks in the subway in the evenings; we first see him singing Van Morrison's "And the Healing Has Begun " to disinterested commuters.
It has begun, because the girl is listening and wants to compare notes in a literal sense. She brings a broken vacuum cleaner to their next meeting -- it trails after her like a sick puppy -- and he mistakes this for romantic interest, which it's not. Bits of their past leak out: the ex-girlfriend he's working out of his system, the husband she left in the Czech Republic and good riddance.
Eventually, though, he plays her a song he has written and kept to himself -- it has a Damien Rice feel, building from a folky whisper to a glorious scream -- and when she tentatively joins in on harmony, it's like a first kiss. The film's absurd R-rating is for language only; the vocal duets are the closest "Once" comes to sex. Although when the man sings "Take this sinking boat/and point it home/we've still got time," we're already past the carnal and into intimacy.
So the climax of the movie's not a love scene but a recording-studio sequence: the guy and the girl and their hastily assembled band try to cobble the pieces of what they're feeling into something that might convince a stranger hearing it on the radio. "Once" observes the mystery of the creative act -- the false starts, the gathering groove -- and finds within it a larger community.
After working through the night, the band and the producer (Geoff Minogue ) pile exhausted and happy into someone's automobile for the "car test" -- driving around while listening to the finished demo through tinny speakers. Suddenly the movie has become a different sort of love story, a group grope toward the sublime.
Carney shoots "Once" raw, aiming for the aimlessness of captured life. The Irish accents are thick, the lighting 40-watt, the leads dour and unpretty. If you need glamour, this is not your movie. The guy and the girl don't have much use for glamour, anyway. They're doing the best they can with what they have, aware that grace either lands when you least expect it -- in the bridge of a song, say -- or slips through your fingers. They're listening to the musical we each carry inside us and that no one ever hears. "Once" hears it, though, and it rocks the soul.
(Correction: Because of reporting error, a review of the movie "Once" in Friday's Weekend section described a character as busking in the Dublin subway. The city does not have a subway system.)