Four stars (R)

Writer-director John Carney describes Once as an “art house musical,” but don’t let the word “musical” scare you off. This is not one of those films where people break into song and dance in the middle of a conversation.

Carney, a former bass player in the Irish band The Frames, has crafted a tale where the songs are a natural part of the characters’ lives. Nothing cheesy here, just a low-key story of two musicians, both hurting from broken relationships, who find support with each other.

The characters are as charming as they are unassuming and the music is wonderful. As I was leaving the theater at Landmark’s Keystone Art Cinema, I heard someone saying that she was going straight to the concession area to purchase a soundtrack, making a joke about one-stop shopping. Being a penny-pincher, I waited till I got home and ordered the CD off of Amazon.com. Odds are that you will want a copy as well.

Of course, that won’t happen unless you see the movie and, with the sunny summer weather and all the festivals and street fairs, I realize that most people are either skipping movies right now or only attending the mega-summer-blockbuster of the week. This week, though, the mega-summer-blockbuster is The Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer, and I’m betting a lot of you will be looking for an alternative cinematic option.

Which brings me back to Once. The film is shot documentary-style, with hand-held cameras and natural lighting and the like. The home movie approach works for the story, though it takes a bit of getting used to. If the shaky images make you uncomfortable, just hang in there. Slowly, over the course of the 88-minute running time, the cinematography becomes a bit more polished. The change is subtle, granted, so subtle that when the movie closed with a very effective tracking shot, I caught myself thinking, “How did we get from there to here?” Nice work.

The story is simple, but engaging. Glen Hansard, lead vocalist for The Frames, plays a Dublin street musician who lives with his father and dreams of traveling to London and securing a recording contract. His girlfriend left him and moved to London, another incentive to visit the city. Marketa Irglova plays a young woman who moved to Dublin from the Czech Republic to start a new life with her baby daughter. She left her husband behind. They meet and forge a connection based on music. As time goes by, they build a supportive emotional relationship as well.

And they sing and play music. Singer-songwriter type of stuff, mostly with guitar or piano, later with additional musicians. The songs are strong enough to grab you on first hearing and the performances are impressive without becoming showy. Both Hansard and Irglova have appealing voices and listening to them is a pleasure.

John Carney has made a movie that travels into the workaday world and finds some of its beauty. With its low-budget look and hand-held cameras, the film feels like a gritty, but sweet glimpse of real life. With its songs and performances, Once is transcendent.

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