Rarely does a movie that’s not a Broadway adaptation rely on original music to drive the plot. But if you took away the soundtrack to Once, there would be no movie.
The film follows a Dublin busker (which is the name that those in the UK call street performers), played by real-life Frames frontman Glen Hansard, as he meets a Czech immigrant (Marketa Irglova) as they form a bond solidified by making music together.
Some reworked old songs by the Frames, a.k.a. that other band from Ireland, are mixed in with some new Hansard material, and some Irglova original additions to round out the tracklist.
If you could blend together a smoothie of ’90s alt-rock like the Wallflowers, plus an Irish version of early Blur, plus a talented version of the Counting Crows, and feed it all to a troubadour, you would get the music of Glen Hansard’s contributions to the Once soundtrack.
If you like Damien Rice at all, you’ll flip out over this soundtrack: these are the songs that fellow Irishman Rice learned from, and the influence is obvious with Hansard’s songs like “Leave” and “Say It to Me Now.”
It’s also really refreshing to hear music from an Anglophone nation that isn’t already saturating the airwaves. It’s become difficult to listen to any band from America and Britain, and to some extent Australia and Canada, and not be able to predict every line of the lyrics. But Irish music is known in the United States a la U2, and really no one else except to a much lesser extent the Frames, and maybe recently Damien Rice and the Thrills. Glen Hansard’s lyrics are always refreshingly unpredictable, yet always appropriate.
What’s more, Hansard inflects every single note of his singing with urgent emotion. He can hit every heartstring with one note, especially evident in “Falling Slowly” and “Lies.” On “Falling Slowly,” in particular, by the time the chorus comes along, and Hansard jumps up an octave in his melody, the tension in his voice is more powerful than a scream.
He doesn’t whine like so many other contemporary bands think expresses feeling; he uses the pitch and volume of his voice to remind people what it’s like to feel.
This is just as true when he sings “Broken Hearted Hoover Fixer Sucker Guy,” because he has the range to make you laugh while he makes fun of himself. Hansard’s music is literally the perfect soundtrack to someone’s life — in this movie, his own — because it compels those who listen to feel what he’s singing about.
It’s difficult to hear new sounds these days with the amount of bands that copy each other in the main music regions of the world: New York, London, Seattle, Los Angeles, etc. This album isn’t perfect, but the sheer newness of the sound — ironic since some of the songs are reworked versions of ones the Frames’ singer had written years ago — more than makes up for the few individual flaws within them.
The movie was a highlight of this summer, and it’s a testament that the music has taken a life of its own.