Quirky Movie Lover’s Delight: John Carney’s Hybrid Musical, “Once”

A busker is wailing his heart out to an audience of absolutely no one as drivers and pedestrians go about their business on a Dublin sidewalk. His brow furrowed and throat straining, he espies a stoop-shouldered addict, cigarette dangling from his lips, stumbling out from a little alleyway where he has just relieved himself against a graffiti-laden wall. Still wailing (“…the healing has begun…”), the busker keeps a wary eye out for the addict, who is milling about in front of the busker’s open guitar case pretending to enjoy the music.

As the addict stoops to ostensibly tie his sneakers, the busker stops singing momentarily and utters words of warning that he will chase him down if the addict dares to snatch whatever meager reward may be lying about in the guitar case, which is the very picture of “not overflowing with bills.”

The addict protests, mills about a bit more, then pounces, swooping up the entire guitar case and dashing away.

There’s precious little artifice from actors, director or camera crew in this classic example of cinéma vérité. No fancy lighting, lots of hand-held camera work, no explosions or fireballs or predictable, dramatic turns of fate.

A decidedly un-Hollywood chase scene ensues, the busker making good on his warning, the addict tiring, one seemingly sad-sack human being bearing down on an even sadder competitor in this battle for the crumbs left behind by their distant, uncaring tribe.

Flopping about under a park archway exhausted, the two exchange words not of anger but woe, the busker mildly reproachful, the addict penitent, claiming he’s dying from an illness that has reduced him to thievery.

The busker winds up imploring, “You want money, just fucking me ask for it, don’t have me chase you all the way up the street!”

The addict, sensing an opening, takes him up on the offer, asks, and the busker hands him a “fiver.” Whereupon the addict helpfully scoops up the few remaining coins from the asphalt and presents them to the busker as if he’s being the donor.

Life then resumes for them and the pedestrians busily scooting by and giving the pair not a glance.

This opening scene of “Once,” John Carney’s extremely low-budget, decidedly oddball 2007 “Irish romantic musical drama,” sets the tone for all the rest of this 86-minute gem that I somehow missed back then but rather giddily enjoyed a couple of nights ago, figuring to share in case you missed it, too.



Like few if any films before or after it, “Once” explores the world of perpetually struggling singer-songwriters chasing not only addicts, but the very dreams that keep their hopes—so many human hopes—alive. Pathos hangs like a dank cloud as they pursue their passion in the face of the most-always-insurmountable odds facing them and all their cohorts of the creatively inspired.

And the movie does so with a hybrid identity—an alternative take somewhere between a classic musical and not-quite-concert film, both of those meeting up with a quirky semi-romance of the downtrodden artist class. A kind of “La bohème” of the non-operatic set.

A large part of the film’s charm comes from the utterly guileless performances of its two stars, the Irishman Glen Hansard and fresh-faced, Czech-born Markéta Irglová, 17 years old at the time. That’s because neither were actors at all but instead struggling musicians themselves, who parlayed their roles in the movie to subsequent semi-stardom after their jointly written song, “Falling Slowly,” came out of nowhere to win the Academy Award for Best Original Song.

There’s precious little artifice from actors, director or camera crew in this classic example of cinéma vérité. No fancy lighting, lots of hand-held camera work, no explosions or fireballs or predictable, dramatic turns of fate.

Irglová, music in her own character’s veins, stops in front of the busking-again Hansard after the opening scene to ask him a few direct, probing questions about his music and situation. Finding out his day job as a vacuum cleaner repairman in his father’s modest shop, her face lights up, and she promises to return the next day with her own wonky machine.

We next see her rolling it down the street as if it’s a poodle, Hansard by her side, dodging other pedestrians as she follows him to the shop. It’s a subtle but funny scene, as are so many in this film that seems to go against every convention that Hollywood keeps pounding at us with such numbing consistency.


The pair wind up having an almost-romance, approach/avoidance style, tempered both by his jilted heart from a previous lost love and her young child (and immigrant mother) at home in a cramped apartment, along with the specter of the child’s  deadbeat father having been left behind in the homeland.

What the duo does have in abundance, though, is a creative chemistry and mutual passion simply to make music of their own, which they love sharing with fellow players and any form of audience that sees fit to gather. The Irglová character plays piano and sings a sweet harmony to Hansard’s oft-soaring, passion-fueled lead. (Neither character is ever named, but so intimate is the film’s entire atmosphere that the intentional omission doesn’t seem the least bit notable.)

Ultimately, they beg and use all the wiles at their disposal to scrape together enough of a loan to rent a studio for a specially discounted, graveyard-hours recording session. Aided by a few other hanging-around busker musicians from the ‘hood who agree to join them, they commence to…MAKE THEIR OWN CD!

And so they do, the half-sleeping, sole studio employee at the sound board gradually opening his ears and eyes to the possibility that the seemingly ragtag musicians making sounds through the glass in front of him actually have something to say. Here’s their lead number, interspersed with key scenes from the movie that makes it serve as a nicely done trailer.



“Once” was made for a grand total of $150,000, three-fourths of that supplied by the Irish Film Board after the initial production plans underwent a number of revisions and cast changes. As of the most recent figures I could track down from 2017, it has grossed $23.3 million—not a bad rate of return in any filmmaker’s world.

The soundtrack has also done right by its creators, and the film has since been adapted for a successful run on the stage.

Carney played bass in Hansard’s rock band The Frames in the early ’90s, so he was well-versed in the music world when writing the script and shaping the performances of his largely amateur actors in “Once.”

And these 17 years later, Hansard and Irková are still an occasional (musical) pair, teaming up again under their moniker of The Swell Season this very August for a month-long coast-to-coast tour. (They tried a romantic pairing soon after falling in love on the film set, but like the movie itself, it did not have a fairy-tale ending; they remain good friends.)

But cheesh—busy musicians pursuing their life’s work unfettered by over-riding want, neither repairing vacuums nor selling roses on the sidewalk as the Irková character does to bring some food and heating oil money into the household?

That’s fairy tale enough in this too-often hard world. Makes for a gem of a movie, too.


This scene, too, early in the movie, the very portrait of on-the-fly music-making, cast aside any doubt that it would be anything but an ever-surprising delight (and Academy Award winner to boot…).


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Deep appreciation to the photographers! Unless otherwise stated, some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing.

Elizabeth Haslam, whose photos (except for the books) grace the rotating banner at top of page.

Library books photo by Larry Rose, all rights reserved, contact: larry@rosefoto.com

Glen Hansard at top of page by WFUV Radio, New York City, https://www.flickr.com/photos/wfuv/

Hansard and Marketa Irglova in concert by Jen, Seattle, Washington https://www.flickr.com/photos/onenjenifer/

4 comments to Quirky Movie Lover’s Delight: John Carney’s Hybrid Musical, “Once”

  • Karen Malin  says:

    One of my absolute favorite films ever! The music, the chemistry between the two leads, and the gentleness of their relationship! It is a timeless and beautiful piece of work. I’m still playing the sound track on my regular playlist rotation. A local theater group performed once a Couple of years ago! I saw it “ twice!”! In addition to the Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova version of falling slowly I quite like this performance., https://youtu.be/vqvgXN3N8L0

    • Andrew Hidas  says:

      Oh, those lads! Always interesting to hear different interpretations, thanks.

      Had to think about whether to do an old film which has since achieved some notoriety in certain circles, but figured many would have missed it, and those who hadn’t would not mind the reminder. And everything you say about it is true!

  • Robert Spencer  says:

    I saw “Once” several years ago, at the height of COVID, when I watched more movies and seldom ate out, a schedule that I’ve now discarded which has unfortunately reduced my savings somewhat. It was a gem. Your research provided background to the film, adding even more appreciation behind its production. The interaction, both personally and musically, is moving, particularly the scene in which Guy introduces “Falling Slowly” to the Girl. The ending surprised me. I mean who buys an ex a piano?

    • Andrew Hidas  says:

      Yep, Robert, that scene at the store piano, with the slightly bemused store owner on the periphery enjoying himself from a distance, was the one that confirmed for me that this was indeed something special, after the opening chase scene had caused me to suspect as much. Sorry your savings got nicked, but just think of all the ways you could have completely wasted all that money (not to mention time) instead of feeding your soul with soulful films!

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