[See also “Frames buddies made indie flick with songs” and “Film depicts new Ireland” by Karen Butler in this week’s print edition.]
The Irish film industry attracted numerous ex-musicians, and cinema soon became the new rock and roll. Among those making that particular career switch was John Carney, the original bassist for revered Dublin band the Frames.
A keen film fan before he took up music professionally, Carney always went on tour with bass guitar in one hand and video camera in the other. He left the band 10 years ago to concentrate on filmmaking full-time, and enjoyed only modest local success in Ireland until this year, when a low-key project he developed with his old mentor, Frames bandleader Glen Hansard, took Sundance by storm to win the coveted Audience Award at the prestigious Utah festival. His film “Once,” a romance movie heavy on music and light on dialogue, inspired standing ovations at Park City screenings and quickly earned U.S. distribution on the strength of that response.
Carney’s film grew out of an idea he had about an encounter between a Dublin street musician and an immigrant girl from Eastern Europe that conveyed the characters’ emotions through melody more than words. An unabashed fan of classic Hollywood musicals, the young director approached former street musician Hansard for some busker anecdotes and love songs for his evolving screenplay, and when the first-choice male lead became unavailable, Hansard was cast by default to take on his first film role in 15 years. He had played red-haired guitarist Outspan Foster in “The Commitments,” and the opening scene in “Once” finds Hansard in the same spot where “The Commitments” ended – busking on Dublin’s Grafton Street. “Once” quickly establishes Hansard’s nameless character, known only as “the Guy,” as a hapless softie who’s been bruised by love and is reluctant to get romantically involved again. A Czech flower seller (Marketa Irglova, similarly nameless) is fascinated by the songs he plays in the street, and wants to know more about the Guy who wrote them. A romance slowly develops, through the songs they sing to each other about their hearts’ wayward progress.
The potential for cheesy results from this setup is enormous, but Carney deftly avoids all the clich