I’ll warn you now, if you have yet to see the 2006 movie Once, you’re about to have it spoiled. If seeing it was not on your current list of Must Do’s, you’re safe. You have made a terrible error in your priorities, but you’re safe.
Once is one of my all-time favorite movies. This is really saying something. I hesitate greatly to give that title to any movie because so many films have meant a lot to me at different times, for different reasons. I think most people are that way with books, movies, TV shows, songs. There are some you can’t shake, but the best and brightest might change over time. Why is Once one of my favorites? For those that know me well, the next sentence may suffice: it’s an independent film that is as much a love letter to Dublin as any other point it serves. But that isn’t the real reason. The real reason is much more personal than that.
Once is the story of Guy and Girl. Guy plays the guitar on Dublin’s main shopping street. Girl has immigrated from the Czech Republic. She is younger, and she has a daughter by her husband who can’t really understand her passion for music, for a beautifully crafted piano, for life. Guy and Girl share stories of former loves, make (literal) beautiful music together, and then spend one epic weekend recording their best hits so that Guy can move to London to start a music career.
I love that Once was done on a small budget and that many of the “extras” are people who blundered onto the set. I love that it has been turned into a beautiful stage show, with imaginative use of a single space and insanely talented musician/actors. I love that it does not have a happy ending; it has a grown up ending. Husbands and children do need to be considered. Fantasies of running away and starting a band are usually just that: fantasies. I love that in real life the Guy and Girl DID fall in love (albeit with a rather large age gap) and their dreams of a small film with original music came true. I love that they later broke up, because as painful as it must have been, not all fairy tales last forever. I love that they won an Oscar for Best Song with “Falling Slowly.”
Most of all, far and away most of all, I love that this movie is about a man who is pursuing his dream, trying hard to make it come true, a man who won’t give up, a man that everybody knows has it but he hasn’t been able to show it, a man who is 36. A 36 year old man that just hasn’t gotten there yet. When do we quit trying? When do we accept that if we were truly good enough we would have “made it” by now?
Glen Hansard had a group before this movie, and his songs had been on the Irish charts, but he didn’t truly find an international audience until his mid 30’s. He’s a voice in the industry now, moving along through his 40’s in a world where you need to be young (and beautiful) or lucky or exceedingly talented (with a break) to get enough money to make art. He bet long odds on his talent. Do you know how many people I’m friends with that are exceptional actors, directors, writers, singers, dancers, that aren’t working? Or they book a few jobs a year and spend the rest of their time doing whatever it takes to make it to the next gig? Do you know how many of them give up? How many gifted performers you’ll never see in anything because they couldn’t find the right break at the right time? They burn out. They tell themselves it’s better to kill it themselves than watch it fall slowly until it smashes to pieces. Or, like me, they take a few commercial jobs a year and hope like hell for the chance to make some art. When the art gets swallowed in nepotism, unannounced pre-casting, insistence that actors brought in from New York are necessarily better than actors in the Midwest…it doesn’t take long to suffocate hope.
Today, after an exceptional audition, an exceptional callback, even personal notes from people present congratulating me on a great audition…I got the official notice my dream job went to someone else. Another woman will stand in front of thousands this summer. She’ll wear the costumes and say the lines. She’ll look out and see the faces I’ve imagined for 20 years.
That’s why I love Once so much. It’s why I’m watching it now. Great music, unknown talent, daring film making, and a grown up ending about giving the 36 year old The Break. I’m still Falling Slowly, unwilling to kill The Break on my own. I volunteer to keep falling.