I wouldn't have seen this film if I'd realized it was a documentary – to me the charm of the 2007 indie hit Once was the story: An Irish busker – Glen Hansard – meets a shy Czech single mother – Marketa Irglova – who lives with her toddler daughter and an assortment of cheap-apartment-block denizens. He notices her playing piano at a music store, and convinces her to accompany him on some songs. Their chemistry pulls them into a hopeful relationship. Rarely does life make as good a story as a well-crafted fiction does. I already knew as much about Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova as I wanted to. But I stayed. This film is about the success of the musical couple in the wake of their Oscar win for the song "Falling Slowly" from Once.
Popularity isn't for everyone, as soon becomes apparent. Intercut with performance bits and a lot of lounging around the random concert halls, hotels and bars familiar to any musical tour, were interview scenes. Those with Hansard's mother were particularly pointless. Overwhelmed by his Oscar, she opens the floodgates of her satisfaction and sense of immortality conferred by the award. But since Hansard, in solo interviews prior to her gushing, gives away her punch-lines, watching her teaches us nothing. Likewise, he explains his father was an undefeated boxer who turned down an invitation to compete in America – he used the excuse of his young wife being pregnant, but admits on camera that the only part of him primed for success was his boxing ability, and everything else was lacking. So he repressed his ambitions and became such a dedicated drunk that when he realized he was dying, he told his son he planned to spend the rest of his life drunk. And did. So when we see the former boxer, we have already been coached on what to think.
Marketa and Glen have some of the conversations any young couple does, who are serious about each other. In that sense their observations are both profound, because as each of us arrives at these revelations they have genuine power, and banal, because everyone has or should have exactly these thoughts: How much should I sublimate my own wishes to this other person's, so we can get along? Am I postponing expression of my true feelings because I believe this situation is temporary, when in fact our situation is what it will always be, precisely because it is an extension of who we are?
Her sweet and ringing conviction is that through all this discomfort of dealing with well-wishers and adulation, and the sense that she and Glen are growing apart because of these stresses and their individual maturing – despite all this she recognizes the breadth of their love, which she believes transcends this existence. Maybe they won't stay together in this life, but the next time around this love will draw together the different people they will be, and perhaps then they will be able to live in that love all their lives. So she hopes, and makes no apology for the way she and Glen are diverging.
He performs one song in a solo practice session, noting that it has a prophetic ring to it. "That happens," he says. "You write a song about an imaginary breakup – which is the furthest thing from what's happening with you in your life, and then it comes true." These two don't really fight, though the accumulated anger between them galvanizes their concert performances. Both seem too matter-of-fact and grounded to just explode at each other – he needs her to smile so she does. She's in love with him so she sublimates herself. And we can tell it won't last.
I have one catty remark, which is to say that Irglova's singing rides the edge of notes, which I found agonizing in her solos. One number in particular, with an out-of-key drum in the background, was really hard to listen to. Hansard shouts and plays his guitar furiously (though the camera does not show us his rapidly strumming hand, instead giving us a view of his elbow and shoulder), and his out-of-tune singing occurs deliberately. We know he can hit those notes when he wants to. But her voice has the uncertainty of someone unschooled in vocals, who sings as an adjunct to her piano and guitar playing. She sings somewhat better than I do, which I'm sorry to say is not a compliment.
If you are interested in the achievement and fallout of success, and if you don't mind yet another musician-road movie, you may enjoy this sweet-natured film. But if you want a story, there isn't one really. Consider yourself warned.