Once answers its own tag line with its title: "How often do you find the right person?" This genre-bending musical and Sundance World Cinema Audience Award winner isn't quite the rock opera of Rent or Hedwig and the Angry Inch, but definitely not the typical flashy Chicago either. The songs, written by leading man and the Frames guitarist Glen Hansard, fit snugly in the college radio singer-songwriter template. They are played on a busted guitar on the streets of Dublin, which is where Hansard's "Guy" first meets his right person, a Czech-immigrant "Girl" (Markéta Irglová).
They meet while Guy is playing on the street, and bond when he promises to repair Girl's vacuum cleaner the next day at his dad's shop, where he works to support his music. As they walk from Guy's busking location to the shop, Girl steps into a musical instrument store, showing Guy that she knows a tune or two as well, playing a classical piece on the piano. Guy then teaches her parts of his guitar song, and the two make music together for the first time, in one of the most moving scenes of the movie. After the vacuum is fixed, they realize they need each other for more than appliance upkeep, and their relationship evolves into a beautiful partnership.
Once, directed by ex-Frames member John Carney, was made for $150,000 on digital video. The shaky handheld camera follows the two lovers as they trek around Dublin on foot, by bus, and by motorbike. The movie's grainy look, natural lighting, and live-recorded sound lend Once the more convincing feel of a home-video documentation rather than a fabricated narrative.
The unromantic rawness of video makes Once's performances crucial, though, and Hansard's and Irglová's faces and voices become angelic canvasses of expression, changing with subtlety and agility in each new moment of their relationship. It's clear that the music--the songwriting and the singing--is what carries this movie. Watching it with closed eyes would still offer a lucid vision of the story, and the long, loud, crackling notes of Hansard's voice convey the emotion he is feeling just as well as his crunched eyebrows and rocking torso. Everything comes down to the music in Once--for the story, for the characters, for their love.