A serendipitous meeting on the streets of Dublin between a down on his luck Irish street performer and a poor Czech immigrant sparks a bond that plays out in this hip, modern day music film. 'Once' follows the two as they write, rehearse and record the songs that reveal their unique love story.
During my years attending the Sundance Film Festival as a full-time member of the press, I was lucky to catch many great movies before anyone knew what they were. My first year as press, being a Chuck Palahniuk fan, I was very lucky to catch 'Choke.' (I'm still left asking, "Why isn't 'Choke' on Blu-ray?!") The next year was a good one with two big hits: one just-so-happened to also star Sam Rockwell ('Moon') and the other was already-acquired '(500) Days of Summer.' If you'll notice, the majority of the films to leave the festival circuit and see the big-screen are those that already have a distributor or feature Hollywood actors and filmmakers. Very few are the truly "indie" titles that actually see the light of day. My festival attendance started one year too late to have seen 'Once' when it made its American debut at Sundance, but I saw it just a few months later prior to its limited theatrical run. The post-festival success that it earned is a highlight of the festival's history, one of the tiny homemade films that truly deserves to be seen.
Irish musician and performer Glen Hansard, who you might recognize from 'The Commitments,' and one-time Czech actress Markéta Irglová play the film's two unnamed leads, Guy and Girl. When the love of his life moved to London for work, stubborn Guy refused to go with her. Time has passed and he's now lonelier than ever an unable to find the courage to go after her. By day he works in his father's Dublin vacuum repair shop, by night he performs his emotional guitar-based songs on the sidewalks of the city. It's during one of his streetside acoustic evenings that he meets Girl. As a single immigrant, she works several random jobs to support her young child and mother. She's immediately drawn to Guy because of his heartfelt melodies and lyrics. Once she learns of his day job, she arranges a meeting to hire him to repair her vacuum. It's during their second meeting that they realize how well they match one another musically – he on his worn-down acoustic guitar and she on a borrowed piano.
With a very simple story that's the perfect kind of "sit back and relax" material, I'll stop the synopsis there.
The musical genre isn't what it used to be. The style has basically died. Other than animated Disney movies, we never see people break out into song and dance like they used to. Long gone are the days of original musicals like 'Singin' in the Rain' and 'West Side Story.' Now, we typically only get live-action classic musicals if they're based on previously existing wildly popular ones, like 'Les Misérables' and 'Hairspray.' The way that 'Once' functions as a musical is very similar to that of 'Inside Llewyn Davis' – the music doesn't serve as the way that characters speak internally or to one another and it's not ignored or meant to be taken as natural; instead, the music exists exactly as it does in both their world and ours. The songs that Guy and Girl perform are just that – songs. Yes, what they perform and sing fits the mood and emotion of the story at hand, but it's not a fantasy-like language that they randomly speak harmoniously and on-the-fly. 'Once' is a musical that doesn't feel like a musical, but a brilliant drama that's filled with music. The romance between Guy and Girl is unforgettably brought to life by the Oscar-winning song, as well as other songs, that will leave you wanting to listen to the soundtrack over and over again.
Fox Searchlight acquired 'Once' shortly after its 2007 Sundance debut. Just a few months later, in May, the division of 20th Century Fox gave it a limited platform release across North America. With a 97 percent Rotten Tomatoes rating and massive buzz from the festival, the small $150,000 musical that was shot with natural lighting in the homes of the filmmakers' friends went on to earn $9.4 million at the domestic box office and $11.2 million from foreign markets. IMDB notes that 'Once' remained in the box office Top 30 longer than competing blockbusters 'Spider-Man 3' and 'Shrek the Third.' This is what Sundance was created to do: give never-heard-of filmmakers, actors and musicians the chance to show the world that they've got what it takes to make entertaining cinematic art. Not only did 'Once' win an Academy Award for Best Original Song, but it was adapted into a Broadway musical that was nominated for 11 Tony Awards in 2012, eight of which it won. 'Once' has been available on Blu-ray in Europe for many years; thank heaven Fox Searchlight has finally brought to America.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Fox Home Entertainment has placed 'Once' a Region A BD-50 disc. 'Once' has been available on Blu-ray for some time now overseas; this marks the first time that it's available domestically – but, for now, only through Amazon. The artistic cover art is different from the standard DVD or UK Blu-ray art. Personally, I love the new cover art (despite the image being reversed, making his guitar out to be left-handed). The blue keepcase is an eco-Elite Vortex case. The static main menu is set to a snippet of "Falling Slowly." Nothing plays before the main menu except an unskippable Fox vanity reel.
'Once' has been given the 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 treatment that presents the film in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio. Despite being shot on Sony digital cameras, the flaws of low-budget indie filmmaking appear throughout. As I list the flaws, please keep in mind that they are not due to a poorly transferred film; 'Once' looks exactly as it looked in theaters.
With a microbudget and lead performers who aren't actually actors, a good chunk of 'Once' was shot from a distance. The crew didn't have permission to be shooting in the streets of Dublin, so many shots are from a distance with a high zoom. The camerawork is unsteady. The focus isn't always spot-on. The imagery is raw and natural, somewhat like a home video that's very well framed and precise. Natural lighting is a constant, which results in ugly compression errors (despite the disc being a BD-50) like banding, artifacts, aliasing and crushing.
While the clarity and lack of celluloid flaws are a tell for the digital cinematography, the sharpness that we've come to expect from the crisp HD medium is missing. The picture that I'm painting isn't sounding all that attractive, but the Blu-ray is easily the best that the film's flawed source material is ever going to appear. The raw little film that we fell in love with eight years ago is just as raw as it ever was, but now the colors are more vibrant and the imagery is equal to its cinematic presentation – which is much better than how the DVD fared.
As you may have expected, the audio quality is just as raw as the video presentation – but it works a little more naturally with the film's content than the picture quality. The original 2.0 mix has been given the lossless DTS-HD Master Audio upgrade.
When it comes to the audio quality, what you see is what you get. Literally. With only a few montage sequences not featuring live audio, for the most part, you only hear the sounds that were recorded during the shoot. The vast majority of the musical numbers are performed in front of the camera. If you know the soundtrack well, going back and watching the movie will signal the fact that the in-movie performances differ from those on the CD. Two songs in the film are definitely not performed live (nor are they meant to be taken that way) and one song fades from a live recording to a studio recording halfway through. Aside from those instances, all of the unplanned natural audio recorded during the shoot is present: buses screeching, passerbys chatting, coffee cups clinking. It's all there. During sidewalk performances, you'll hear the music echo off the cobblestone streets and storefronts. Sounds are always locked into the front channels, but if you're paying attention, you'll notice that the music is actually mixed dynamically between the two channels. I didn't notice the same mixing during everything that's not music.
All of the following special features were brought over from the DVD release.
When I first watched 'Once,' I wasn't sure how everyone else would take it. Because I fell so deeply in love with the characters, the music and their story, I was afraid that others wouldn't feel the same way, so I somewhat kept it to myself. Much to my surprise – although it shouldn't have been a surprise – it took off. I've only met one person in the last eight years who hasn't loved it. 'Once' is a motivating tale of relationships and ambition that's told through the wonderful universal language of music. It's funny, touching and highly relatable. The microbudget raw film shoot is apparent in both the video and audio qualities of the Blu-ray, but the disc itself isn't flawed in the slightest. For a small indie production, there are quite a bit more special features found on the disc – all of which were available on the original DVD release. If you haven't seen this Oscar-winning picture, then you're truly missing out on one of the very finest musicals and dramas to ever come out of the film festival circuit.