Life is not like the movies -- that’s why people still pay money to see them. Just ask Academy Award winners Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova the Irish and Czech singers behind the massively popular Irish folk rock group the Swell Season.
The pair won the Oscar for Best Original Song for their composition “Falling Slowly,” the theme to their breakout Irish film Once in 2007. It skyrocketed them to fame overnight.
Unusually, their relationship played out onscreen and off, in both fact and fiction, both as the couple at the center of Once and privately in reality.
The tension between those two extremes is probably enough to wreck anyone’s head and in Swell Season, the new documentary film that follows the two immensely talented singers on tour here in the U.S. and elsewhere, it eventually does. We watch sadly as the couple’s romantic dalliance comes unglued.
Sudden and heady fame doesn’t often come to folk rock musicians, and in fact they rarely seek it out themselves, so when their startling success arrives the pair decided to just dive in and ride the wave by going on tour.
Swell Season is the gorgeously shot black and white documentary film that follows Hansard and Irglova’s career in the aftermath of their Oscar win. The documentary received its world premiere at the Tribeca
Film Festival in New York on Monday, where directors Nick August-Perna, Chris Dapkins, and Carlo Mirabella-Davis presented their magical slow burn of a film tracking the highs and lows of the musical couple’s real relationship as it intensifies and eventually unravels.
Watching Hansard, 41 onscreen, you’re quickly reminded what a singular Irish talent he is, and what an accomplished singer too. His voice can rise from the most intimate whisper to a near maniacal howl of anger and pain with startling speed and range.
Ireland hasn’t produced a male rock singer who compares with this guy, and the film gives him his due. A simple, no frills rendition of “Raglan Road” that Hansard sings midway through the film could be destined to become a definitive version. But Hansard seems to produce classics at every turn.
The cameras capture the private man too. We return to Hansard’s working class Northside Dublin home where we meet his parents.
His mother is wise and witty and loves her son’s fame and success, but his father is a withdrawn alcoholic, a man whose wrestling match with his own private demons always ends in a loss. Tragically, he passes away as the film is being made.
“My Da died drunk,” Hansard tells the interviewer to camera later. “Whatever darkness he carried inside him, he carried it always. And growing up we felt it, you know?
“I asked him before he died to tell me what it was he was trying to escape from. I said, ‘Tell me now Da, while you still have time.’ He said he didn’t want us to ever know and he took his secrets with him.”
Hansard’s face has a haunted expression as he tells this story. It’s an expression that returns when we watch him trying to negotiate a rough patch in his relationship with Irglova, who is nearly 18 years his junior.
Later we see the toll that all the touring and the pressure of the follow up album places on his shoulders. He begins to have panic attacks, he goes to a dark place in his own mind and that haunted look returns. All of this happens in front of the camera, and it makes clear there are deeper dramas happening off.
Fame isn’t everything, Hansard suggests. He talks about “the award” with all the detachment of a man who places little value on it. What he wants to be is a rock musician, and everything else looks like a mirage or a trap.
Irglova’s talent is astonishing. Now 23, as a songwriter, singer and musician she’s already in possession of abilities far beyond her years.
But as the film progresses we see her increasing impatience with the demands of touring. She also begins to step out of Hansard’s shadow. That inevitably leads to tensions, and the cameras record it all.
Awkward body language, uncomfortable pauses, conversations that start and go nowhere. All the recognizable signals of an impending break up abound.
And it has to be said, though Irglova’s a gifted artist, this film suggests she’s a little humorless, inclined to be heady and introspective in a way that sometimes jives and sometimes jars with her Irish lover.
If the film has a hero – and it does – it’s Hansard. He’s a mysterious but painfully sincere man who after the Oscars and all the fame, we discover, still hasn’t found what he’s looking for.