I admit it; I have a fondness for musicals. I own a copy of Kiss Me Kate and thoroughly enjoy Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. My beloved Mrs. Speculator, on the other hand...not so much. I completely understand her arguments. Sometimes it is horribly unnatural for people to burst into song about the events unfolding around them (which is why the musical episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer is so wonderfully ingenious), but I tend to just see this as a given in the storytelling that you have to accept. If you don't accept it, then no matter how beautiful the music or profound the lyrics, the movie just isn't going to work for you on its own terms.
Enter Once. Suddenly everything you know about musicals is turned on its ear, as a small little movie sets about breaking all the conventions and succeeding wildly on its terms and those of the musical-loving audeince.
Glen Hansard, lead singer for the Frames, plays a vacuum cleaner repair guy in Dublin who spends his free time making small change as a street musician. One night, the character played by Marketa Irglova, listens to his music and engages in conversation about who the song was written for. She is attractive and he is lonely, if a little unusual in her lifestyle, and it turns out she needs her vacuum cleaner repaired. So she returns to him the next day, and he discovers that she is a talented musician in her own right. She likes his music, he likes her playing, and they begin performing together, because she believes he is good enough to earn a record contract and she is going to help do it.
Unlike the movie musical convention, each song appears organically as the two work on their music and eventually get a back-up band as well. Songs are heard as they rehearse, as they write and as they record. The songs remain part of the story nonetheless, revealing hints of the emotions of the characters, which is a good thing since the actors have no training at all, but are in fact real musicians.
Nevertheless, a real chemistry grows up between the two main characters (known only as Guy and Girl), both of whom have been hurt by the people they love and use the music they create to fill the void they both feel. However, after an aborted attempt at seduction on the part of the guy, there is no overt romance between them; their circumstances will not allow it. But it is clear that they do care immensely for one another and could have a relationship beyond the devoted friendship they share, but they skirt that line throughout the movie. And another movie musical convention goes by the wayside--the two protagonists do not end up together but instead end up in the places they are meant to be. No "boy meets girl, boy loses girls, boy gets girl" tropes here. I found myself flinching throughout the course of the movie as I felt as if the movie was going to veer off the course it had set for itself--something dangerous was going to happen to Girl and Guy was going to have to come to her rescue, throwing them into each others' arms. It never does.
Of course, the music. The movie would be such a minor little thing were not the music astonishing in its power and emotion. The two leads voice their pain and confusion in pared-back, mostly acoustic songs that are heart-wrenching. I will be buying the soundtrack, and perhaps their other album they have put together, and then I'll start looking at buying albums from Hansard's band. Trust my taste or not, women in the audience were weeping at the performances, and not because they were bad. The music makes the movie, and the movie is fresh, original, and quite quite lovely.
Here's the trick. I've been waiting for this movie for about three months. It's a small indie film that is going only to art-house theatres, so you may have to search for it. But do search. Find this movie. If there's any justice in the world, it's going to be up for nominations when awards come around.
[edit -- the day after this posting, I was doing research on the music of Hansard and Irglova, and found the official Once web site, http://www.foxsearchlight.com/once/. The soundtrack runs continually in the background, all the songs, on repeat. It's a good way to hear this outstanding music.]