This is the little love story that could. Made for just over $150,000, Once – a story about two young musical lovers in Dublin – was a box office smash receiving such critical acclaim that it has been given new life on stage. And despite the subtle beauty and raw energy that unfolds from every intimate note, you might ask: How did this little love story become so big? Well, in order to understand, we must know about one band – the Once band – the Swell Season. The movie tells the story of an Irish musician and a Czech immigrant drawn together by their love of music. It was the brainchild of John Carney – who was best known at the time as the bassist for the Irish band the Frames. It starred Frames’ frontman Glen Hansard and Czech singer-songwriter Markéta Irglová. This was certainly a case of art-imitates-life: Hansard and Irglová met in real life for the first time when she was just 13 when her father organized a Czech music festival in which the Frames played. Hansard was invited to the family’s home, where he saw a piano and asked who played it:
“So I played him a song,” Irglová recalled in an interview with Radio Prague, “and he said, ‘Do you write your own material?’ I said, ‘No.’
But with Hansard’s influence, the teenager started penning her own songs. By 2006 they’d developed a partnership, forming a band – the Swell Season – and began the recording of “Falling Slowly,” written for the Czech film Beauty in Trouble. During those studio sessions they recorded many of the songs on the Swell Season’s 2006 debut album that appear on the movie soundtrack – “When Your Mind’s Made Up,” “Lies,” and “Leave”.
Neither figure had any professional acting experience, but Hansard persuaded his bandmate Carney to cast Irglová as the unnamed Girl in Once, and soon the director was referring to them as his Bogart and Bacall. In retrospect, the tension depicted in the movie was all too real, as age differences (she was 17, he was 34) kept them from having sex and a grander love. But when the movie studio sent them out on a bus tour to promote the film, they couldn’t resist the temptation and became a couple. Although they eventually broke up, the pair still perform together.
In the end, the massive success of Once — as a film, soundtrack and now musical — has as much to do with the simplicity and authenticity of the songs as does their on-screen chemistry. Once timelessly croons the joys and sorrows of love: powerful enough to turn our lives upside down; it is never tidy, sensible or even forever.