A man stands at a street corner with his guitar, singing. During the day, when people pass by and are likely to drop a coin or two into his box, he sings popular numbers that they may have heard. It is after dark that he starts singing his own stuff. Whether or not his music is to your taste is, I think, immaterial — it is impossible to ignore the way his intensity goes up a few notches when he is singing his own compositions.
A woman approaches him. “Where is she?” she asks after a modicum of preliminaries about why he doesn’t sing stuff like this during the day. “She’s gone,” he replies. It is clear that music like this cannot come out of anything other than personal loss. She doesn’t know him, nor he her. This is a pretty personal conversation for two strangers to be having.
It turns out eventually that she is a musician as well. And that, I think, is all you need to understand. Once is a movie about two people who fall in love while they make music together. But it is not so much about their “romance” as about the sense of camaraderie and respect that two people share when they find common ground in a particular activity. In that sense, it has much in common with Girl with a Pearl Earring, that little gem of a movie about Johannes Vermeer’s famous painting.
Two scenes really stand out for me. The first is the one where they play together for the first time. It is at a store that sells musical instruments, where she has a deal with the owner to come in and play the piano for an hour. She brings him along, and they play a song he wrote called Falling Slowly. He gives her a rough idea of the music, starts off slowly and lets her join in. They play tentatively at first, slowly getting used to another person sharing their space. And as they grow in confidence, the music begins to soar. As a scene that shows the developing bond between them, it is nothing short of perfect.
It also serves to set up a later solo where he is in his room, singing a song about his breakup with his girlfriend. Home video clippings of them together plays in the background. It is clear that he hasn’t still gotten over her. But as he sings, you hear her (the girl, not the ex-girlfriend) voice slowly coming in, providing the harmony to his lead vocals. A part of you recognizes this and says, “Yes, this feels about right.”
These days, there is at least one big budget Hollywood musical coming out every year. Most of the time, the music is just an excuse to stage a big production number. But every once in a while, a movie comes along to remind you that the music doesn’t need the help.