There have been a lot of attempts over the last ten years (or 40 years, or whatever) to update the classic Hollywood musical film. Most of these movies are pretty painful to watch. Dancer in the Dark, Moulin Rouge, Everyone Says I Love You, O Brother Where Art Thou?, etc., all suffer from one or more of the following: bad scripts, bad songs, bad casting (John Leguizamo as a squealing midget?), silly politics, excessive nostalgia, or (most of all) an inability to move the action from dialogue to song without creating hopelessly contrived and awkward moments that seem to make both the actors and audience squirm nervously. And then there is John Carney’s Once, an ultra low-budget busker musical shot in Dublin with non-actors, most of whom were themselves former street performers. Whereas most recent musicals (save Hedwig and a smattering of musical animation) have struck me as hopelessly misguided, Once is a genuinely appropriate 21st century musical–it’s raw, real and lightly melancholy like the The Puffy Chair or some of the other better ultra-indies; but it is also still romantic, hopeful and musical, like a modern day Singing in the Rain. And somehow that works out perfectly.

It was pretty tough to get tickets to Once at Sundance in January, so I missed it while I was there–and felt terrible once I spoke to people who had seen it. The reviews were great (check out the 100% red Tomatometer) and everyone seemed to love it (it won Audience Awards at Dublin and Sundance). So I was very pleased when Stu VanAirsdale of the Reeler (my favorite NY film blog, if I haven’t mentioned that before) called up to offer Rooftop a couple of free tickets. Mark and I quickly accepted the offer and dashed up to MoMA to snatch the tickets from his hands.

I’m glad to say that Carney’s film is deserving of all the hype. Often described as a sort of neo-verite musical, Once tells the tale of a lonely Irish vacuum cleaner repair man (played pitch-perfect by Glen Hansard of the Irish band the Frames) who supplements his income by playing cheesy mainstream ballads in the street during his lunch breaks. At night after work he returns to playing in the streets, but once the crowds have cleared he performs his own songs–tremendously well performed, angst-ridden, autobiographical ballads that he feels are too depressing to play for the cheerful shoppers who stroll past in the afternoon.

After hearing one such song, Marketa (Marketa Irglova) introduces herself. She is young and pretty and from the Czech Republic, apparently lonely or heartbroken as well, loves his songs and has a broken vacuum cleaner to boot. It seems a perfect match, but Glen is skeptical and withdrawn and he doesn’t at first give her much of a chance. Nonetheless, she returns the following day, pulling her little Hoover behind her by the nozzle as if it were puppy on a leash. Carney unabashedly sets out to make Marketa irresistibly, cutely charming, and he largely succeeds by giving her a number of adorable little lines reminiscent of those that Godard once wrote for Anna Karina. Glen invites Marketa to have lunch with him by asking Marketa if she is hungry and she says cheerfully and nonchalantly, “Yes! I am always hungry,” and hops into the cafe.

It turns out Marketa is also a musician and the two of them improvise a surprisingly touching duet in a music store and share a bus ride to Glen’s house/Hoover repair shop. Along the way Glen explains the source of his emotional turmoil via a charming series of little ditties about his ex-girlfriend, and by this point it has become apparent that the songs performed live in the film will communicate far more about the emotional lives of the characters than any of the dialogue. When Glen makes a clumsy pass at Marketa later that day in his bedroom she merely stands up and says, “What? Fuck this. Thanks for the Hoover,” and walks out the room. It’s a cute moment and a priceless line, but it’s also understated and oblique, and it sets the tone for the entire film; the songs are baldly confessional and very emotional, but the characters are mostly incapable of baring their feelings once the music stops.

The tension between the open nerves displayed in the music and Glen and Marketa’s inability to express themselves in their daily life is exhilarating to watch. Though the basic storyline of the film is slight–let’s put on a show!–the film never drags for a moment, as we can’t pull our eyes off the two leads as they alternately dance towards and away from one another. The songs are mostly performed and recorded live in front of the camera and are consistently strong and strangely well recorded (Mark and I were both rather confused as to how these two things were achieved, but alas…no Q and A). What’s perhaps just as important is that though the songs serve the traditional function of filling in the emotional content of the story, the characters are always motivated to sing them aloud by some plausible action within the plot. Given contemporary audiences reluctance to give in to the conventions of the musical this is not an easy thing to pull off. But Carney (and Hansard) create the illusion of effortlessness that keeps the film feeling breezy and allows the emotion of the songs to sneak up on us. More than once I felt blindsided by a beautiful chorus, as if I wasn’t prepared for the depth of feeling I suddenly felt for the characters, and I could feel the audience around me reacting the same way. It is quite an invigorating film to watch in a theater.

Unfortunately, Carney was too sick to attend the Q and A, so a lot of my questions about the production have yet to be answered. But Stu caught up with the filmmaker on Thursday and asked him some good questions. The film is being released by Fox in May and you absolutely must see it should you get the chance–my first official must-see film of 2007. If you want to read more about Once you can check out a few of these interviews: from The Reeler from (Sundance) from Indiewire (Sundance).