Anatomy of a Scene #7: Once
My father, for the most part, watched only older movies (with a few exceptions – Woody Allen films, anything to do with the Muppets – movies made after about 1960 didn’t appeal to him), and while there were some genres he liked (comedies both silent and screwball) more than others (he didn’t like violence in movies, so most film noir, gangster movies, war movies and Westerns were out), the genre he loved more than any, I think, was musicals (not just film musicals either – he owned several cast albums, and saw several Broadway musicals in the 50’s and 60’s). He could sing by heart most songs from musicals made from the 20’s to the early 60’s (Fiddler on the Roof was probably the last one), and could talk authoritatively about the composers of those musicals as well.* Even though my taste in classic movies is different than my father’s was – (I’ve grown to love film noir, gangster movies and Westerns, and like war movies if they’re done well enough), I love musicals like he did. It was tough to be a fan of them in the 90’s and 90’s, not only because there was such a backlash against the genre (people who didn’t give a second thought to the believability of special effects-driven movies – which I like if done well – scoffed at the very idea of people bursting into song; plus, it wasn’t considered “manly” enough), but because they were considered too expensive to make (it didn’t help there had been a number of flop musicals in the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s). The musicals that did get made in the 80’s and 90’s didn’t look (or sound) like the ones my father enjoyed. Some had singing but no dancing (Pink Floyd: The Wall), some had dancing but no singing (Footloose), and even those with both (Absolute Beginners) seemed more influenced by MTV than traditional musicals. Occasionally, there was a Broadway adaptation, but again, there were more flops (A Chorus Line) than hits (Evita) in that department, reminding studios why they shied away from the genre for the most part (there were also movies like The Commitments and That Thing You Do that purists objected to calling musicals, but I classify them that way). Only animated films – mostly from Disney, with occasional exceptions (South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut) – seemed to get away with being musicals.
Moulin Rouge, which came out in the early summer of 2001, changed all that. Baz Luhrmann’s movie (baring a scant resemblance to John Huston’s 1952 Toulouse-Latrec biopic of the same name), about an aspiring writer (Ewan McGregor) who falls in love with a dying courtesan (Nicole Kidman), wasn’t a big hit upon its initial release, but it was nominated for eight Oscars (including Best Picture and Best Actress for Kidman; it won for Best Art/Set Direction and Best Costume Design), became a hit on DVD and video, and those who could get past Luhrmann’s combination of MTV-style editing, anachronistic songs (either song whole or medley-style), and a tone that combined the satirical and sentimental loved it (I’m one of them). The following year, the movie version of Chicago (based on the 70’s Broadway hit from Bob Fosse) came out, was a big hit, and won six Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Supporting Actress for Catherine Zeta-Jones. Some critics griped at how director Rob Marshall changed the show so the musical numbers would only happen inside the character’s heads (as if that was the only way audiences would accept people bursting into song), and they also weren’t happy at how the camerawork and editing seemed to be doing most of the dancing work for Zeta-Jones and Renee Zellweger. Still, Chicago and Moulin Rouge both helped bring along, if not a renaissance of the movie musical, at least a comeback. It also helped that there seemed to be a new wave of actor/performers, and even directors, who loved the form and were eager to show their talents in them on the big screen (or, in the case of Glee, on the small screen).
However, for me, this comeback came at a price. Even the musicals I liked during the next decade or so (Sweeney Todd) seemed to emphasize form over feeling, whereas the musicals I had loved growing up (Singin’ in the Rain, West Side Story) were satisfying on both levels. There’s an episode of M*A*S*H where Charles (David Ogden Stiers), who’s trying to convince a concert pianist (who’s lost the use of one of his hands thanks to a combat injury) not to give up on himself, confesses while he’s always wanted to play (Charles is shown time and again through the series as a classical music devotee), and he could play the notes, he couldn’t make it music like it should be. That’s how I felt about movies such as the musical remakes of Hairspray and The Producers; obviously, everyone involved was technically skilled, but the end results felt completely empty to me. One of the happy exceptions to this, and my favorite musical of the last decade, was John Carney’s Once, and the scene where the main characters perform “Falling Slowly” – which ended up winning the Oscar for Best Song that year – is a perfect example of why the movie works so well.
Glen Hansard, of the band The Frames, stars as a man (given no name) who repairs vacuum cleaners to pay the bills, but spends most of his time busking in the streets of Dublin (Hansard had appeared 16 years earlier in The Commitments, and the last we saw of his character in that movie, he was also busking on the street, so it wasn’t a stretch to see this as the same character). One night, as he’s playing, a woman (Marketa Irglova) starts asking him about the songs he plays in general (why he saves his original songs for later in the day; it’s because he gets more money from people when they recognize a song he plays), and specifically about the song he just finished playing (“Say It To Me Now”), which she correctly guesses is about his ex-girlfriend. He’s mildly annoyed by all her questions, but also intrigued. She, in turn, likes the song, and is also happy to hear he fixes vacuum cleaners, as hers is broken. Sure enough, the next day, when he’s playing his guitar in the street, she comes by with her vacuum cleaner. He protests he doesn’t have his tools with him, but she convinces him to at least let her go to lunch with him. At the cafe they go to, she tells him her father played violin and taught her how to play piano. She can’t afford a piano of her own at home (which he understands), but says there’s a piano shop where the proprietor lets her play every day, and she invites him to join her. Inside the shop, she sits down at a grand piano (the owner says she can play, but not on the baby Yamaha, as it’s been sold), and plays Mendelssohn (“Song Without Words”), which he loves. After that, she cajoles him into playing one of his songs, which is “Falling Slowly”.
As with “Say it To Me Now”, “Falling Slowly” is a song (at least in the movie) he’s written about his ex-girlfriend (Carney based the story on his relationship with his ex-girlfriend), and the lyrics reflect that:
Falling slowly, eyes that know me and I can’t go back
The moods that take me and erase me and I’m painted black
Well, you have suffered enough and warred with yourself, it’s time you won
While the recording for the actual soundtrack adds other instruments (violin, viola and cello, though they’re used sparingly), in the movie, it’s just the two of them playing and singing together. Obviously, they’re both talented musicians, but even talented ones need to rehearse to play with others at first (which they do at the beginning), and also, when they start to play together, it’s soft and tentative at first, at least for her as she tries to follow (to be fair, he’s been playing this for a while, and this is her first time, even though it’s relatively simple). As the song continues, though, you can see a spark go through them, as they realize they play well together, and they start to play with more power and assurance. Carney, along with cinematographer Tim Fleming and editor Paul Mullen, honor this in how they shoot and edit the scene; there’s only ten cuts during the entire length of the song (four minutes, thirty seconds), with most of those cuts coming near the end of the song. Also. while the camera may move around from one side of the piano to the other, it doesn’t move around much aside from that (there is a cut to the store owner at one point near the end, as he listens in approval, but that only lasts for a couple of seconds), and except for the second verse, it’s almost always a two-shot (in the second verse, it moves from Hansard to Irglova, and then pulls back for the two of them). Finally, although there are a couple of times when the camera zooms in on Hansard and Irglova, it isn’t until the final playing of the chorus that Carney and Fleming shoot Hansard and Irglova in a close-up (from one side of the piano, and then, after a few seconds, from the other).
Neither Hansard or Irglova are really actors (they both went on to voice a Simpsons episode together), but even if you didn’t know the two of them became a couple during the making of this movie (they’ve since broken up, but apparently remain on good terms) – even though, ironically, their characters never get together in the movie, because she’s married (the relationship is rocky, though), and he’s obviously still hung up on his ex-girlfriend – you can tell the chemistry between them. Obviously, this happens on a musical level (not just during “Falling Slowly”, but other songs as well), but it also happens in between the songs, from the first time they meet to their last scene together. That’s another thing that distinguishes Once from most of the other musicals that came out in the wake of Moulin Rouge; it understands what happens when the music stops is just as important. But as “Falling Slowly” demonstrates, what makes music so powerful isn’t just the notes, but the way it comes together and makes you feel.
*-When I was about 10 years old or so, the stepfather of my best friend at the time took both of us to see a local theater production of Bye Bye Birdie. In my ignorance, I didn’t know it was an old musical until I came home afterwards to a party my parents were having, and my father – along with others at the party – started singing, “We’re gonna be on Ed Sullivan”).