A thirty-something busker performs with his guitar on Grafton Street, a Dublin shopping district and chases a man who steals his money. Lured by his music, a young Czech flower seller talks to him about his songs. Delighted to learn that he repairs hoovers, she insists that he fix her broken hoover. The next day she returns with her broken hoover and tells him that she is also a musician.
At a music store where the Czech woman regularly plays piano, the man teaches her one of his songs ("Falling Slowly"); they sing and play together. He invites her to his father's shop, and on the bus home musically answers her question about what his songs are about: a long-time girlfriend who cheated on him, then left ("Broken Hearted Hoover Fixer Sucker Guy").
At the shop, the man introduces the woman to his father and takes her to his room, but when he asks her to stay the night, she feels insulted and leaves. The next day, they reconcile and spend the week writing, rehearsing and recording songs. The woman rehearses lyrics for one of his songs ("If You Want Me"), singing to herself while walking down the street; at a party, people perform impromptu (including "Gold").
The man works on "Lies", a song about his ex-girlfriend, who moved to London. The woman encourages him to win her back. Invited to the woman's home, the man discovers that she has a toddler and lives with her mother. He decides to move to London, but he wants to record a demo of his songs to take with him and asks the woman to record it with him. They secure a bank loan and reserve time at a recording studio.
The man learns the woman has a husband in the Czech Republic. When he asks if she still loves her husband, she answers in Czech, "Miluju tebe", but coyly declines to translate. After recruiting a band from other buskers, they go into the studio to record. They impress Eamon, the jaded studio engineer, with their first song ("When Your Mind's Made Up"). On a break in the early morning, the woman finds a piano in an empty studio and plays the man one of her own compositions ("The Hill").
After the all-night session wraps up, they walk home. Before they part ways, the woman reveals that she spoke to her husband and he is coming to live with her in Dublin. The man persuades her to spend his last night in Dublin with him, but she stands him up and he cannot find her to say goodbye before his flight. He plays the demo for his father, who gives him money to help him get settled in London. Before leaving for the airport, the man buys the woman a piano and makes arrangements for its delivery, then calls his ex-girlfriend, who is happy about his imminent arrival. The woman reunites with her husband in Dublin and plays the piano in their home.
The two leads, Hansard and Irglová, are both professional musicians. Director Carney, former bassist for Hansard's band The Frames, had asked his long-time friend to share busker anecdotes and compose songs for the film, but had intended the male lead to be played by actor Cillian Murphy, who was an almost-signed rock musician before turning to acting. Murphy was also going to be one of the film's producers. But Murphy declined the prospect of acting opposite non-actor Irglová (then 17 years old) and also felt that he hadn't the vocal capabilities to belt out Hansard's octave-leaping songs, so he pulled out, as did the film's other producers along with their financial resources. Carney then turned to songwriter Hansard, who'd previously done only one acting job, a supporting role as guitarist Outspan Foster in the 1991 ensemble film The Commitments, the story of a Dublin soul music cover band. Hansard was initially reluctant, fearing that he wouldn't be able to pull it off, but after stipulating that he had to be fully involved in the filmmaking process and that it be low-budget and intimate, he agreed.
Produced on a shoestring, about 75% of the budget was funded by Bord Scannán na hÉireann (The Irish Film Board), plus some of Carney's own money. The director gave his salary to the two stars, and promised a share of the back-end for everyone if the film was a success. Shot with a skeleton crew on a 17-day shoot, the filmmakers saved money by using natural light and shooting at friends' houses. The musical party scene was filmed in Hansard's own flat, with his personal friends playing the partygoers/musicians—his mother, Catherine Hansard, is briefly featured singing solo. The Dublin street scenes were recorded without permits and with a long lens so that many passersby didn't even realize that a film was being made. The long lens also helped the non-professional actors relax and forget about the camera, and some of the dialogue ended up being improvised.
During the shoot, Carney had predicted a romance, calling Hansard and Irglová his Bogart and Bacall. Hansard and Irglová did become a couple in real life, getting together while on a promotional tour across North America, and living together in Dublin, in Hansard's flat. Entertainment Weekly reported:
The chemistry between (the) two leads ... was easy to produce during the January 2006 shoot in Dublin. "I had been falling in love with her for a long time, but I kept telling myself she's just a kid," says Hansard, 37, who has known his 19-year-old costar for the past six years. "There was definitely the feeling we were documenting something precious and private."
Subsequently, Hansard indicated that they were no longer a romantic couple. He said, "Of course, we fell into each other's arms. It was a very necessary part of our friendship but I think we both concluded that that wasn't what we really wanted to do. So we're not together now. We are just really good friends."
Yet Hansard and Irglová were quite happy with the unrequited ending for their onscreen characters. In an interview, Hansard states that "Had the US distributor changed the end and made us kiss, I wouldn't be interested in coming and promoting it, at all." Hansard says that ad-libbing produced the moment where Irglova's character tells the Guy in unsubtitled Czech, "No, I love you", but when it was shot, he didn't know what she'd said, just like his character.
Both Hansard and Irglova give the impression in interviews that they are unlikely to pursue further acting. Irglova has spoken about being nervous in front of a crew, saying "I don't think I would be a good actress, overall", and Hansard generally refers to the movie as a one-off, talking of "moving on... living a different life".
As a result of the film, Hansard and Irglová have been releasing music and touring together as The Swell Season.
Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová reprised their roles in The Simpsons episode "In the Name of the Grandfather".
Box office performance and awards
A rough cut of the film was previewed on 15 July 2006 at the Galway Film Fleadh, but the film was subsequently turned down by several prestigious European film festivals. However, once finished, it secured spots at the 2007 Sundance Film Festival on 20 January 2007 and the Dublin Film Festival in February 2007, and received the audience awards at both events.
The film was first released on cinema in Ireland on 23 March 2007, followed by a limited release in the United States on 16 May 2007. After its second weekend in release in the United States and Canada, the film topped the 23 May 2007 indieWIRE box office chart with nearly $31,000 average per location. As of 28 March 2009, Once has grossed nearly $9.5 million in North America and over $20 million worldwide. After 2007's box office success and critical acclaim, it won the Independent Spirit Award for Best Foreign Film. Steven Spielberg was quoted as saying "A little movie called Once gave me enough inspiration to last the rest of the year". When informed of Spielberg's comments, director John Carney told Sky News, "in the end of the day, he's just a guy with a beard". At the time of this interview, Carney himself was also wearing a beard.
The song "Falling Slowly" won the 2007 Academy Award for Best Original Song. The nomination's eligibility for the Oscar was initially questioned, as versions of the song had been released on The Cost and The Swell Season albums, but this was resolved before the voting for the award took place. The AMPAS music committee satisfied themselves that the song had indeed been written for the film and determined that, in the course of the film's protracted production, the composers had "played the song in some venues that were deemed inconsequential enough to not change the song’s eligibility".
Once was met with extremely positive reviews from critics. Upon its March 2007 release in Ireland, RTÉ's Caroline Hennessy gave the film 4 out of 5 stars and termed it "an unexpected treasure". About the acting, this Irish reviewer commented, "Once has wonderfully natural performances from the two leads. Although musicians first and actors second, they acquit themselves well in both areas. Irglová, a largely unknown quantity alongside the well-known and either loved or loathed Hansard, is luminous." Michael Dwyer of The Irish Times gave the film the same rating, calling it "irresistibly appealing" and noting that "Carney makes the point - without ever labouring it - that his protagonists are living in a changing city where the economic boom has passed them by. His keen eye for authentic locations is ... evident".
In May, on Ebert & Roeper, both Richard Roeper and guest critic Michael Phillips of the Chicago Tribune gave enthusiastic reviews. Phillips called it, "the most charming thing I've seen all year", "the Brief Encounter for the 21st century", his favorite music film since 1984's Stop Making Sense and said, "It may well be the best music film of our generation". Roeper referred to the film's recording studio scene as "more inspirational and uplifting than almost any number of Dreamgirls or Chicago or any of those multi-zillion dollar musical showstopping films. In its own way, it will blow you away." Once won very high marks from U.S. critics; it is rated 97% "fresh" by the film review aggregation site Rotten Tomatoes and scored a grade of 88 ("universal acclaim") according to Metacritic.
In late 2007, Amy Simmons of Time Out London wrote, "Carney’s highly charged, urban mise-en-scène with its blinking street lamps, vacant shops and dishevelled bed-sits provides ample poetic backdrop for the film’s lengthy tracking shots, epitomised in a sequence where the Girl walks to the corner shop in pyjamas and slippers while listening to one of the Guy’s songs on her personal stereo. With outstanding performances from Hansard and new-comer Irglová, Carney has created a sublime, visual album of unassuming and self-assured eloquence." The Telegraph's Sukhdev Sandhu said, "Not since Before Sunset has a romantic film managed to be as touching, funny or as hard to forget as Once. Like Before Sunset, it never outstays its welcome, climaxing on a note of rare charm and unexpectedness."
The film appeared on many North American critics' top ten lists of the best films of 2007:
In 2008, the film placed third on Entertainment Weekly's "25 Best Romantic Movies of the Past 25 Years".
DVD and Blu-ray
Once was released on DVD in the US on 18 December 2007, and in the UK on 25 February 2008, followed by a British Blu-ray release on 16 February 2009. Once was released on Blu-ray in the US as an Amazon-exclusive on April 1, 2014.
The soundtrack album was released on 22 May 2007 in the United States and four days later in Ireland.
A collector's edition of the soundtrack was released on 4 December 2007 in the US with additional songs and a bonus DVD with live performances and interviews about the film. The additional songs were two previously unreleased Van Morrison covers: Hansard's "And the Healing Has Begun", and Hansard and Irglová's "Into the Mystic".
Different versions of a lot of the soundtrack's songs were previously released on The Frames' album The Cost and on Hansard and Irglová's The Swell Season (both released in 2006). An early version of the last track, "Say It to Me Now", originally appeared on The Frames' 1995 album Fitzcarraldo. "All the Way Down" first appeared on the self-titled album from musician collective The Cake Sale, with Gemma Hayes providing vocals. The song "Gold" was written by Irish singer-songwriter Fergus O'Farrell and performed by Interference.
All tracks written by Glen Hansard, except where noted.
The soundtrack was nominated for two 2008 Grammy Awards, under Best Compilation Soundtrack Album for Motion Picture, Television or Other Visual Media and, for "Falling Slowly", Best Song Written for Motion Picture, Television or Other Visual Media. It won the Los Angeles Film Critics Association Award for Best Music, and it was ranked at number two on the Entertainment Weekly 25 New Classic Soundtrack Albums list (1983–2008).
The soundtrack album reached #20 on the Irish Albums Chart in its first week, peaking at #15 a few weeks later. Following the Oscar win, the album reached the top of the chart, while "Falling Slowly" reached a new peak of #2.
In the United States, it ranked as the #10 soundtrack on 1 June. As of 11 July 2007, the album has sold 54,753 copies in the US. The album reached #27 on the Billboard 200 according to Allmusic. It also reached #2 on the Soundtracks Chart and #4 on the Independent Chart.
The film has been adapted for the stage as the musical (Once). It first opened at the New York Theatre Workshop on 6 December 2011. The screenplay was adapted by Enda Walsh and the production directed by John Tiffany.
In February 2012, the musical transferred to Broadway's Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre. It began in previews on 28 February 2012 and opened on 18 March 2012. Directed by John Tiffany, the cast features Steve Kazee as Guy and Cristin Milioti as Girl with sets and costumes by Bob Crowley. The music is from the film with two additional songs, and the cast is also the orchestra. The musical opened up to generally positive reviews. Since its opening, Once has been named Best Musical by The Outer Critics' Circle, Drama League, The New York Drama Critics' Circle, and The Tony Awards.
The Broadway production of Once was nominated for a total of 11 Tony Awards, including Best Musical, Best Actor in a Musical (Steve Kazee), Best Actress in a Musical (Cristin Milioti), Best Featured Actress in a Musical (Elizabeth A. Davis) and Best Direction of a Musical. On 10 June 2012, it won eight Tony Awards including Best Musical, Best Direction of a Musical, Best Book of a Musical and Best Actor in a Musical.