Immediately apparent when walking into the Ritz Carlton suite where I’m scheduled to interview director John Carney and lead actors/musicians Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova of the Sundance audience favorite “Once” is the frenetic edge to their on-the-road exhaustion (they rolled into San Francisco at 6:00 that morning). The room is disheveled; the coffee table overflowing with half-filled cups of coffee; and the publicist’s cell phone is jingling.
Irglova, as petite and delicate as a Brocket deer, is curled up on the sofa, obviously wishing she could sleep. Hansard is on Carney’s Mac trying to locate the nearest North Face outlet to buy something he absolutely needs for the rest of their tour, and Carney is pacing the room nervously, staring out the window, looking like someone in the wings longing to be on stage. They’ve been self-promoting the film for the last few weeks by traveling from city to city, living out of a big bus. The publicist admits that — as musicians — they’re used to touring and playing music in different cities every night, but not so used to fielding film press junkets during the afternoons. I aim to be as gentle as possible and joke with Hansard that the next song he writes should probably be a plaintive lament of life on the press junket trail. He agrees.
I caught this first feature of John Carney’s at SFIFF50. Filmed on the streets of Dublin in January, 2006, over 17 days — “A short shoot where we tried to keep the camera steady” — “Once” exhibits a crowd-charming loveliness. I express my confidence that the film will be a word-of-mouth success. Carney counters, “You reckon?” Response has already been robust.
Having read several pieces and a few interviews where Carney cited the musicals that influenced his desire to create “Once” (“Guys and Dolls,” “Singin’ in the Rain”), I’m curious which musicals — if any — were favorites of Hansard and Irglova? Irglova starts off, stating that — even though John keeps talking about “Guys and Dolls” and “New York, New York” — she has never seen them and has no interest in watching them. Irglova describes such musicals as too fake for her and the arbitrary breaking into song and dance too artificial to accept. She prefers a more naturalistic approach to incorporating music into film. Otherwise, even if a movie has good actors, singers, and dancers, she gets bored when they break from the story into song; it takes her out of the moment. She admits she’s probably a child of her generation. That being said, she “loves” “Hair” and “Jesus Christ, Superstar;” she has watched and appreciated both repeatedly since she was five.
Carney challenges her, “So why wouldn’t you enjoy seeing ‘Singin’ in the Rain’ then?” Irglova determines it had to do with the acting style: the exaggerated theatrical performativity of the classic MGM musicals treat the songs like cabaret numbers, in contrast to how they’re sung in “Hair” and “Jesus Christ, Superstar,” where the songs are acted out more realistically, perhaps more accessibly. She can believe in “Hair” because hippies did dance and sing in public. It’s not such a stretch to accept. “The lyrics are almost a dialogue,” Irglova elaborates. Though she was never one for films about the life of Christ either, partly because they were always too serious, “Jesus Christ, Superstar” was an inspiring departure. Not only were the performances heartbreaking but the singing and dancing more expressive than the old B&W musicals where the actors all grin in unison into the camera.
It’s a question of different styles of fantasy, I offer, suggesting that the older musicals express a fantasy relevant to their time, usually escapist. Whereas “Once” resonates with contemporary audiences because it’s quieter, more private. The songs are in synch with the situations; not trying to escape them. As Robert Wilonsky has written for the Village Voice: “[T]he magic of the movie is how utterly wrenching it renders these songs, which thrive alongside the film’s simple, eloquent, dusky narrative.
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