Once More With Feeling

Once, a stunning new Irish film opening nationwide on May 18, tells the tale of a Grafton Street busker and a Czech immigrant who come together over an eventful week to write, rehearse and record songs that bring their unique love story to life. CAHIR O'DOHERTY reports.

AS the two lead roles in the exciting new Irish film Once get to know each other, sparks fly and new songs are written. But this is no by the numbers boneheaded musical, but rather a gritty and realistic story of modern Dublin and the dreams of two immensely talented hard working people who live there.

Cillian Murphy was originally slated to play the hero, but when that deal fell through the role was taken - very reluctantly - by the lead singer of the celebrated Irish band the Frames, Glen Hansard, 37. It was a stroke of luck and to the film's lasting benefit. With his Irish everyman looks and with a voice so strong that it can raise the rafters, he brings a complete authenticity to the role that lifts the film into another realm, one that matches the soaring beauty of the music.

Hansard's strong performance is matched by the film's other breakout star, Marketa Irglova, 27, the Czech-born singer and songwriter who recognizes his talent and enhances it with her own. Each day they meet on Grafton Street, and an achingly tender relationship forms between them.

Perhaps it's because they are not professional actors with a suitcase full of theatrical tricks that Hansard and Irglova make such a winning couple on the big screen. But that's not to suggest they give unconvincing performances - on the contrary, as professional musicians, their genuine skill and their passion for their work shines through every scene.

"John Carney (the film's director) called me up one day and said he wanted to talk about this script he was writing about a busker," Hansard said during an interview with the Irish Voice.

"I had been a busker In Dublin from the age of 13 onward. He wanted to see if I could add a few ideas to the script. I told him about a lot of incidental stuff that had happened to me - a typical day in the life of a street musician, you know?

"Like when a drunken guy comes up and tries to steal my guitar case. Or when the chanting Hare Krishnas are drowning me out. Or when the passer-bys are asking me to sing Aslan songs. Those were all straight from life. So John gave me the script and asked me to think about writing songs for it. I was delighted when he told me that he really wanted to use all the songs I gave him."

As far as Hansard was concerned, he thought that his involvement in the film would end with his submitting the songs for it.

"At the time the busker was going to be played by Cillian Murphy, and John Carney was looking for an eastern European to play the role of his friend. I suggested Marketa, who I had worked with on my last album, because she fitted the bill. But she had never acted before and she was much younger than the person the director was originally looking for. But he met her and cast her."

A couple of weeks went by, and then out of the blue the director met with Hansard and offered him the part. Hansard was stunned.

"I was a bit freaked out," he says, laughing. "I'm not an actor and I wouldn't have any confidence in that area. I really didn't know if I'd be able to act. He spent a long time persuading me.

"He said you play music together, you know each other really well, I've seen you on stage together - all I want to get is the connection between you that you already have."

There was significant overlap between his life and the life of his character in the film; a hardscrabble background making money to get by, applying for bank loans to pay for recording sessions.

Growing up in the notorious high rise, drug-ridden Ballymun flats in the 1980s, Hansard saw close up what fate had in store for some of his neighbors.

"The flats went up the same year I was born," he said. But Hansard showed a particular talent for music which his teacher, Frankie Byrne, encouraged strongly.

"You can't tell me the square root of nine, but you can tell me who played bass on Blond on Blond - so I'm telling you now - leave school today, start your musical career, get a guitar and go to Grafton Street and start making something of this talent you have. So I took his advice and I busked from when I was 13 until I was 18. Then I formed my own band."

Small but important details make the film so memorable. The scene where Hansard's character plays his first professional demo tape for his appreciative da for example, is particularly tender and funny moment.

"But you know we never saw rushes, it was all up to the director. For months after we made it we hadn't a clue what it would turn out like," Hansard recalls.

After Once was made (and before it received the audience award at the prestigious Sundance Film Festival this year) they had the most modest hopes for it. Says Hansard, "We thought if the film does well we'd put it out on DVD and hopefully cover our costs. We never anticipated that it would take off like this.

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