Thursday, January 21, 2010

Great Musical Moments: "Falling Slowly"

A lot of people I know don’t like musicals: they find the breaking into song and dance too awkward, abrupt, silly and consequently, difficult to digest. Or else, they find them too garish with the gaudy colours and the way in which the production is typically mounted. Therefore, I often find myself defending musicals to death to them as I believe that musicals, in their essence, are simply another form of movies which use music to tell their story. I honestly believe the distinction of musicals as a genre along with “drama” and “comedy” is an oddity as while the latter indicate the broad themes of the film, the former is simply a medium of story telling. It tells nothing about the story itself. Musicals can be black and satirical (“Chicago”), chick and fun (“Mamma Mia”), dark and demonic (“Sweeney Todd: Demon Barber of Fleet Street”), historical and retrospective (“Cabaret”), nostalgic and biographical (“Jersey Boys”), fantastical (“Wicked!”) and so many other things. Just when you think that musicals have been imagined in every way possible, some creative director (a Rob Marshall or a Tim Burton) comes and surprises you and redefine your parameters. One such film was John Carney’s first feature, “Once”.

Now, I saw “Once” at one of the worst points of my life. Nothing was going right and I was trying hard to run away from a lot of things. I was strolling through a DVD shop and I came across the DVD. With nothing better to do and few better choices, I decided to give it a shot. And at one of the lowest points of my life, “Once” made me smile for a long time after it was over.

I firmly believe that “Once” is the best musical of our generation. This is because it redefines the parameters of the musical by using the music as a part of life and something very real and relatable. Consequently, not only works stupendously as a musical but also transcends it and establishes itself as a great movie generally. The story of a street-singer cum vacuum cleaner repair man (Glen Hansard) and the rose selling Czech immigrant (Marketa Irglova) in 1980s Dublin and the journey they take together in getting a small band together to record the songs they have written and composed is simple, poignant and beautifully bittersweet. He is coming out of a bad relationship and she has a husband who is away doesn’t care for her. While he is good with the compositions and the guitar, she sets those compositions to beautiful lyrics and weaves magic with her piano. They both carry immense baggage but find solace in their music in the most unexpected ways.

Music in “Once” is used in a unique way as they use the songs to tell their stories of pain, sorrow, beauty and hope. Each song has an anecdote to it and the music here is key to understand where these characters are coming from and where they are going. Unlike movies like “Chicago” or “Sweeney Todd” it is hard to imagine “Once” as a non-musical as the music is simply so central to the film. Not one song is forced or unnecessary. Moreover, music is inherent to these characters as well the actors who play them. This is why when they break into song; they never break out of character. Further, there is no multi-million dollar production or garish, loud musical numbers. Instead, the movie has been made on a shoe string budget of $160,000 and the music has elements of folk, rock, contemporary, indie and even jazz to it. It is simple, mellow and for a musical, instantly relatable. Each song is a gem and collectively this is, without a doubt, one of the best albums of this generation.

Now “Once” starts off slow. Glen Hansard’s gruff voice and his occasionally jarring notes make you wonder why you rented this movie. For the first 15 minutes or so, the movie seems too dull, too tiresome. However, there is a moment in the movie where everything falls into place. The movie sneaks up on you, grabs you by the hand and has you hooked for the rest of your time from thereon. That moment is when, in a music shop, the guy and the girl (which is how they have been credited in the film) sit next to a grand piano and he teaches her a song that he has written. The result is the song: “Falling Slowly”.

“Falling Slowly” is beautifully composed and surprises you with the depth beneath its deceptive simplicity. The lyrics are significant as they are about the woman the guy once loved and yet, they are just as applicable to where the girl is coming from. And finally, at some level, it symbolises their story together. It is the beginning of a journey they take as friends, as musicians and eventually, as lovers. However, their love story is in no way conventional. Its treatment is unique and unpredictable. At the same time, I think John Carney, the writer understands love in its purest form better than most other filmmakers. For him love is that which goes beyond one’s own desires and seeks to fulfill the hopes and desires of the other. It is the absolute agony of the longing and yet the sense of fulfilment in the joys of the other. The magic lies in the process and not in the culmination. And “Once” has dollops of magic that way thanks to the way in which, John Carney, the director chooses to execute the story. Using its documentary style, the movie makes us a feel like a part of the proceedings as a silent spectator of the story. The emotions are real, the people even more so and all this is beautifully encapsulated in the moment where the man and the woman sit on that piano and begin their musical relationship together.

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