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PARK CITY -- Described by Irish director John Carney as an "art house musical," "Once" was one of the unheralded small films that took people by surprise and became a sleeper hit at the Sundance Film Festival, winning the World Audience Award. The story of a street musician and an immigrant girl who connect and then disconnect, the film has enormous charm and zero pretense. It deserves to find a home in theaters, where it should win over an indie audience with its likable characters and terrific music. At press time, "Once" was on the verge of being picked up.

Carney, who started out as bass player in the Irish band the Frames and became a filmmaker, had long been thinking about how to stage a modern musical. His solution was to make his main character a street musician (known as a busker in Ireland) and the heroine a Chechnyan immigrant who plays the piano, and have their relationship be expressed by the music they make together.

For the guy (the characters are never named), Carney had the good fortune to recruit Glen Hansard, the redheaded, charismatic lead singer of the Frames. For the girl, he found a beautiful Czech musician named Marketa Irglova, who was only 18 when shooting started. Hansard and Irglova already were friends and had made an album together, and they both get to the emotional truth of their parts with a naturalness that more seasoned performers rarely capture.

He's struggling to make a living singing on the street, and she sells roses to passersby to support her mother and young child. Struck by this guy singing his heart out, she starts a conversation and takes him to a music shop where she practices at lunchtime. As they run through a song titled "Falling Slowly," a soaring lament for wounded lovers, the camera films them separately and then together in the same frame, and it's clear that their musical bond is struck.
Hansard's character is talented, funny and tormented by the woman he has lost, while Irglova still is wondering what to do about the husband she left back home. It is impossible not to root for these appealing people to get together, but it might be the wrong time and place for them.

In the tradition of movie musicals, he wants to record some songs for a demo and recruits a motley crew of street musicians and rents studio space for a weekend. After the session, he plans to take off for London to try to win back his girlfriend, despite the growing attraction for his new friend.

The set-up of the film allows for wall-to-wall music. The tunes, most of them written by Hansard, are powerfully performed with a Gaelic directness in a folk-rock vein. As the songs come together in the studio, the music and their feelings build to a climax that is achingly real. In a Hollywood film, there is no doubt that they would wind up together. Here the maturity of the filmmaking allows for the possibility of disappointment. The accomplishment of the film is that it's just as satisfying.

Although made quickly and cheaply (the film was financed by the Irish Film Board), "Once" has an appropriately rough-hewn look, the visual equivalent of a talented garage band. Lensing by Tim Fleming on Dublin location captures the spirit of a town that is booming around characters who don't quite fit in. But their indomitable spirit comes through loud and clear in this lovely film.

Samson Films
Screenwriter-director: John Carney
Producer: Martina Niland
Executive producer: David Collins
Director of photography: Tim Fleming
Production designer: Tamara Conboy
Music: Glen Hansard, Markets Irglova
Costume designer: Tiziana Corvisieri
Editor: Paul Mullen
Guy: Glen Hansard
Girl: Marketa Irglova
Guy's dad: Bill Hodnett
Girl's mother: Danuse Ktrestova
Ex-girlfriend: Marcella Plunkett
Timmy Drummer: Hugh Walsh
Lead guitarist: Gerry Hendrik
Bassist: Alastair Foley
Bill: Mal Whyte
Eamon: Geoff Minogue
Running time -- 88 minutes
No MPAA rating
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