Once became something of a musical sensation when it first premiered in 2007, winning the World Audience Award at Sundance. A simple, moving tale of two talented musicians falling in love, it captivated audiences due to its intimate storytelling and transcendent music. The instant success of Once’s soundtrack would soon push Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová to form The Swell Season, a successful Folk Pop duo who went on to create two fantastic albums. Once charmingly weaves their music into one of the most magically romantic films of this century.
Writer and director John Carney fashions Once out of the unbelievable chemistry between Hansard and Irglová. Neither were professional actors before Once, having been picked largely for their musical talents. The realistic love story and their emotions are told as much through song as exposition, everything flowing naturally from the stunning music. People that don’t get The Swell Season’s music will have a tougher time appreciating Once, which is a nearly fifty-fifty blend of music and drama.
Hansard is the unnamed street musician in Once, singing for spare change on the streets of Dublin. It’s not a far stretch for the Irish rocker, having been the bandleader for the Frames. Markéta Irglová is a classically trained pianist, a native Czech girl having recently emigrated to Ireland and selling flowers on the street. She is the target of Hansard’s affections, a poor woman that sneaks into the local piano shop during her lunch break to play their pianos.
It is immediately apparent from his first notes in the film that Hansard is a wildly talented songwriter that needs a shot of confidence. Instead of making an album, he’s living with his widowed father and working in a vacuum repair shop as a day job. Irglová sees something in his music and possibly in Hansard himself. Together they start spending more time on his music, incorporating some of her musical talents as well into the songs. Everything about their relationship develops in a genuine and authentic manner, growing closer as Hansard begins to realize his musical dreams.
The romance between them feels utterly naturalistic, as adult responsibilities start intruding into their burgeoning relationship. Hansard rolls with the punches when it is revealed that Irglová has a young daughter and the father is not in the picture. She is living with her mother in a small place and neighbors constantly intrude to see their television, the only one in the building. There is another bombshell revealed later that threatens the relationship, just when it looks like the couple have moved past their awkward first steps together.
Receiving complete support from Markéta Irglová, Hansard finally decides to record an album featuring them and a couple of other street musicians they pick up as a backing band. It’s his dream to make an album and get signed to a record deal in London. He has an appointment with the record label already lined up, so the album needs to be finished. Getting a loan from the local bank, he spends the money to professionally record the songs he has been writing.
Irglová is a complete mystery in her broken English, a person hard to read as she acts distant at times, in contrast to Hansard’s more open personality. Irglová’s emotional state is better told through Once’s music, as her songs clearly detail her inner feelings quite well. Hansard is a natural actor, largely playing a character not far removed from his true identity. Director Carney had actually played music with Hansard in the Frames at one time and the script is tailored to those strengths.
Once is a mesmerizing musical adventure with one of the best and most realistic romances ever depicted in the past couple of decades. The fantastic songwriting of the Swell Season truly crafted some of the best Pop Folk songs ever used in a movie, eventually leading to Once becoming a true musical in recent years as a Broadway hit. It’s a gem of a movie that has received almost unanimous praise in critic circles and for good reason; the unforgettable chemistry between the two leads is incredibly rare.
Note: Once on Blu-ray is an Amazon exclusive item.
A couple of things need to be understood about Once’s picture quality. The micro-budget movie was made on a Sony HVR-Z1, a professional camcorder intended for television and documentary work. Its native recording format is 1080i and Carney pushed its limits on the shoot for Once.
Fox has done everything possible to give the occasionally flawed digital cinematography of Once its best presentation on Blu-ray. A few years back, Icon Home Entertainment released Once in the UK as a region-free BD. Fox’s 1080P presentation is superior to that older BD, using an AVC video encode that pushes the limits of the format at 39.96 Mbps for the main feature. There are still interior shots with macroblocking, banding, and spurious noise, but they are all endemic to the digital intermediate and cannot be removed. Early digital video had a nasty tendency to breakdown when pushed in dim settings, which some of Once certainly qualifies. Fox’s transfer has seemingly removed some of the visible aliasing that was evident on the UK disc.
Actual resolution is a clear step down from quality 1080P transfers, lacking the type of definition and sharpness found in better film and video. Exterior shots look fairly clean with decent contrast and some detail. Overall clarity gets degraded in the darker shots, especially in Markéta Irglová’s tenement building. There is no serious black crush in them, but shadow delineation is weak and soft.
No one will confuse Once with demo material. Occasionally the picture quality resembles standard-definition video in softness and detail. It looks like a lot of digital footage made a decade ago for disposable television content. There is nothing inherently wrong with it except some questionable digital artifacts in the darkest scenes, which have minimal screen time. The video score reflects Fox’s superiority over the UK transfer, which is now obsolete. Once is presented at its intended 1.85:1 widescreen ratio.
Much of its reason for existence is the fabulous music by Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová heard throughout the film. Once’s soundtrack is delivered in an excellent sounding 2.0 DTS-HD MA option. One would never realize from the top-notch fidelity that most of the songs in Once are from live recordings done on the set. The stereo mix is precisely oriented and gives off a spacious sound, as the two voices harmonize together in crystal clarity. While the digital cinematography was obviously low budget in Once, music and dialogue are treated with the utmost care. It’s a perfect sound for a movie that so heavily relies on songs to carry the narrative.
Fox has also included a Spanish dub in 2.0 Dolby Digital at 224 kbps. Optional subtitle options include English SDH, Spanish, and French. They display in a white font.
Currently a Blu-ray exclusive found solely at Amazon, Fox has brought over all the supplements from the original DVD. It would have been great to see a newer documentary covering what happened to The Swell Season after Once became a musical sensation, as both Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová moved on to solo careers. Nothing newer has been added to this BD. We still get an interesting musical commentary from the rising stars and some cool behind-the-scenes featurettes.
Film Commentary by Writer/Director John Carney, Glen Hansard, and Markéta Irglová – Carney tends to dominate this discussion, as they reminisce over filming Once and some funny tidbits from the musicians. Carney is direct and lays out everything he intended with the film, which is refreshing. This is one commentary worth watching if a person has any interest in the movie.
Musical Commentary by Writer/Director John Carney, Glen Hansard, and Markéta Irglová (36:37) – The two musicians directly address each musical part. For fans of their music, this is fascinating stuff. They shine some insight into their creative process and both reveal interesting nuggets behind Once’s music.
Making A Modern-Day Musical featurette (12:43 in upscaled HD) – A fine piece that goes behind the scenes, primarily interviewing director John Carney and Glen Hansard.
More Guy, More Girl Featurette (09:39 in upscaled HD) – Carney explains the genesis behind Once’s story, this is mostly stuff that could have been included in the first featurette. We get a feel of how parts of the movie were largely ad-libbed by the actors.
Broken Hearted Hoover Fixer Sucker Guy Webisode (56 seconds) – A rough short using crude stick drawings as some kind of web promo.
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Click on the images below for full resolution screen captures taken directly from the Blu-ray. Images have not been altered in any way during the process.