Judging from the box-office performance of Phantom of the Opera and The Producers as well as how quickly Dreamgirls has been forgotten, one might say it's definitely for the worse. The form is just too phony to connect emotionally on screen.
But now with Once, the Irish writer/director John Carney is trying a very different -- and very understated approach -- to the musical. An indie film made with a $50,000 budget and shot mostly with handheld digital-video cameras on the streets of Dublin, it follows a thirtysomething busker as he tries to make a record with the help of a charmingly sweet, piano-playing Czech-immigrant mother (Markéta Irglová) he has just met. He wants to take it to London to launch a career.
The songs flow organically and never superfluously out of the minimalist story, or rather the story flows organically out of the songs. Glen Hansard, who plays the busker and was a member of the Irish band The Frames (as well as in the cast of The Commitments), is a yearningly romantic Folk Rock singer/songwriter in the style of Van Morrison or The Waterboys.
His music couldn't be further from what is considered a Broadway-style "musical number," which maybe is why Once is so refreshing.
Another reason is the egoless, heartrending performance by 17-year-old Irglová, a young actress impossible not to love.
At the 2007 Sundance Film Festival, where Once made its North American debut, it won the Audience Award in the World Cinema/Dramatic category. It was acquired by Fox Searchlight Pictures, which is planning an early-summer release.
In advance of that release, the lean, casually dressed 35-year-old Carney came to Los Angeles recently for some private screenings and interviews. He met me in the outdoor garden of a French café in Culver City, where he drank bottled water and nervously tried to decide whether to light up a cigarette. (He didn't.)
"This is an attempt to make a modern-day musical about musical people who sometimes sing to each other or perform to each other, living in a musical world," he explains. "I like the idea of trying to make a film full of songs with the loveliness of the musical on a tiny budget like an art movie. And I like the idea of a younger audience going to it and potentially having an interest in the way musicals might be made."
Carney had quit high school and was working in a Dublin music store and playing bass when he first met Hansard, who was in a band.
"He asked me to listen to tapes he had just made, and it was amazing," Carney recalls. "I joined his band and played bass in The Frames for three-and-a-half years and at same time I got bitten by the film bug and started making films with my girlfriend.
"I wanted to make a feature film and watched John Cassavetes movies and was blown away by them. It was amazing to see American independent movies for the first time. So I quit the band and made a film called November Afternoon, and it did well in Ireland and established my name as a writer and director. And then I did TV."
Once reveals Carney's Cassavetes influence right at the start, when a druggie snatches the busker's guitar case -- and its tips -- on a pedestrian mall and a chase ensues. It appears to be unfolding in real time, vérité-style and unscripted, and could go anywhere as a scene. Yet it, like the rest of the film (and like Cassavetes' own movies, for that matter), was scripted, although room was left was for the songs to play out fully.
The chemistry between Hansard and Irglová is apparent from their first scene together, when she talks to him on the pedestrian mall. There is a teasing easiness, a romantic appeal.
There's also a touch of surrealism. When she learns he fixes vacuum cleaners at his father's store for a living, she brings her broken one to him, carrying it like a pet on a leash. This leads to their visiting a music store where she's allowed to play piano during slow times. The camera pans from piano to vacuum cleaner as they sing and play.
"She was a friend of Glen's already," Carney says. "Before Glen got the part and he was just going to be the film's composer, I said I was going to cast a European woman and he said he knew someone. They had recorded some songs together. She was fantastic and she had never acted."
(Irglová's parents worked in the music business in the Czech Republic and at one time had been involved with promoting The Frames.)
The film's title, which is also the name of one of Hansard's songs, refers to what Carney calls a peculiar Irish condition.
"It's a very obvious title in a way," he says. "It's the idea of a vacillating Irishman putting off the inevitable: 'Once I record my album, it will be brilliant,' 'Once I go to America, I'll be great.'
"So I thought that's where this kind of character is at in his life. It's about putting off a dream because he's a bit scared of the path that leads to it. Once derives from that Irishness."
When I tell Carney Once reminds me of Richard Linklater's equally romantic Before Sunrise, he takes it as a great compliment. And he says he hopes it leads to a sequel, as Linklater's film led to Before Sunset.
"I'm going to do a sequel in six or seven years' time," he says. "I've contracted the actors to do that for me. No matter what they're doing, we'll get together for a month and have new songs." ©