Let's just get the negatives out of the way up front. If you'd told me that my favorite movie this year would a) be less than 90 minutes long, b) feature non-professional actors, and c) be a musical...well, I'd a told you that you were nuts.
But nonetheless, that is the case. Somehow this movie doesn't have me thinking of eighty-someodd minutes as short, but rather slender, compact, or even lean. The acting isn't amateurish, it's earnest, or better said, heartfelt. And it isn't a musical, but rather...um, no, it is a musical.
The musical is a powerful genre. I live in a city that has an entire industry dedicated to it on the stage, and recent year-end award nominations and wins for Dreamgirls and Chicago show that it's still viable on the big screen. But it's tricky. Done right, music and film form a feedback loop, where love for one increases appreciation for the other. But if any of the elements go wrong, it's a disaster. Spending time with lackluster music is no fun, no matter how dynamic the characters are or how splendid the visuals (I haven't seen Dreamgirls, nor would I see Hairspray, because the songs don't really get me where I live). But at the same time, we're looking for more than a music video--the film musical has to be a good movie, too. Look at the recent failures of two revered hit musicals, Rent and the Producers, to find an audience at the multiplex.
The genre also operates under the handicap that we're not really buying the primary conceit of the genre--that is, that Olivia Newton-John just looks out at the night sky and spontaneously belts out "Hopelessly Devoted," with full, invisible orchestral accompaniment. It's no coincidence that few of the musicals you see these days are set in the present. There just seems to be an extreme disconnect between the world of spontaneous singing and our world full of cell phones and ipods.
Once works because it creates that world, a place where you can believe that sometimes people sing interchangeably with speaking. It's a world where music is so highly valued that you steal from a child's piggy bank to get batteries for a CD player, or walk into a loan officer's office armed with nothing but a second-hand suit and a tape recorder, all so you can pursue the dream of making music. It's a world where girl (Marketa Irglova) meets boy (Glen Hansard) not because of some contrived meet-cute situation, but because she's intrigued with his sidewalk performances of original songs; and where the girl (the lead characters are not given names) doesn't really catch boy's attention until he sees her spidery fingers dancing on a piano keyboard--but when he does, it's a love-at-first-sight moment. It turns out they make sweet music together--but since both of them have long-distance attachments, the question is, will they get to make (ahem) sweet music together?
Hansard and Irglova aren't really professional actors (he'd had a small part in the other famous Irish music movie, the Commitments; she's apparently a complete novice) but they're both professional musicians. Musicians acting can be jarring--even the good ones, like David Bowie, tend to stick out like a sore thumb in a cast of "real" actors. Director John Carney protects both his leads well, by not giving them too many scenes head-to-head with real actors. Bill Hodnet does some nice work as Hansard's dad, but most of the other roles are portrayed by untrained actors, whose naturalistic performances meld well with Hansard and Irglova's.
But just as musicians can rarely duplicate the nuances of acting, actors rarely get music performance right on film. At its best, you have movies where the actors do a beautiful job of mimicking a famous performer's movements or even their voice, but you put that next to Prince doing his thing in Purple Rain, or Hansard singing his heart out on a street corner in this movie, and it's not too hard to tell the real thing from the counterfeits. It's the musical performances that make this movie--the music is good enough that it was downloading from iTunes within ten minutes of my getting home.
Very highly recommended.