John Carney’s ‘Once’ and Why Good Stories Don’t Need Big Budgets

Famous for his musicals that don’t feel like musicals, Irish director and writer John Carney came into the limelight of indie film-making after Sing Street, his coming-of-age drama set in 1980s Dublin. But his debut feature, despite its critical acclaim, Academy Award-winning music, and transformation into a Broadway and West End production, sadly falls through the cracks of audiences’ knowledge. Made on a minuscule budget of €180,000, Carney’s Once is a girl meets guy story – literally, because we’re never told the protagonists’ names. Tied together by their mutual love of acoustic music and faraway pipe dreams, they set out to record an album.

More than a decade the film’s release, the opening footage looks like it was shot on a phone. Across an average high street road, a busker (Glen Hansard) stands outside a shop singing his heart out but is ultimately ignored by the passers-by. It’s only a few moments before a man makes a run for it with the guitar case and whatever euros might’ve been earned. In a flash, the song is cut off, and a short-lived chase ensues. When they eventually tire in a park, it’s not a heated argument but merely an exhausted show of empathy that resolves the situation. ‘I’m sorry mate,’ the thief apologises. ‘I’m out there trying to make a living like everyone else,’ the guy responds. They pick up the dropped coins and spilt the change between them before they part with a hug.

It’s these strange but touchingly visceral moments that make up Once. Next thing we know, we’re back on Grafton Street, and the Guy’s still there singing into the empty and echoing night. The camera moves in (entirely handheld) and when the belting song ends, we step back and there is a woman (Markéta Irglová) right there, smiling. She asks if he still loves the woman he’s singing about, speaking with a Czech accent. ‘Jesus man,’ he laughs when she dives into the deep questions immediately. It’s charming, the fact that it has the kind of heart that is a bit too far for reality but that we love to see in films. It turns out he works in hoover repair shop, and she has a broken vacuum cleaner. Destiny, right?

The film won plenty of awards across Irish and international festivals, but what really drew attention was its Academy Award win for the original song Falling Slowly, written and performed by the lead actors themselves. It’s not fifteen minutes in that the song arises, and it’s never heard again, yet this film is absolutely full of music. There’s barely five minutes that go by without a song or a live performance, but you almost don’t notice because you’re following people who naturally play and are around music. It’s not the Hollywood ‘we’re going to burst into song and everyone’s going to magically know the lyrics and the dance steps’.

And when they start singing – raw, slightly out of breath, non-autotuned voices – you forget that the footage might not be in HD. The camera is shaky, handheld as it often is, and the light is mostly natural or part of the location. But the performances are whole-hearted, and the story is full. And what is a film if it isn’t telling a story? It’s shot almost like a documentary; through windows and on the opposite sides of the street. It’s fly-on-the-wall, unobtrusive, almost like its forcing you to let the characters’ stories play completely out of your control. It’s that feeling that life is unfair, but you just have to roll with it.

If you’ve seen Sing Street, the opening shot of protagonist Conor sat on his bed strumming his guitar as his parents argue in the hall is obviously recreated from this film. After meeting the Girl, the Guy sits alone in his tiny bedroom with its yellow light, strumming his guitar after a day and night of busking. He’s not a teenager and there are no shouting parents in the background, but that echo of loneliness and the deep need to be understood runs strong. (There are other puzzles pieces to spot if you’re a fan of Carney’s work too: a parent bringing a tray of tea into a cramped band rehearsal, or a rose-tinted love story left behind in the past but played through the screen of a laptop.)

Because no matter what film Carney makes, the driving force is always having a dream. Once is undeniably a love story, but it’s more about falling in love with the romance of a dream than a person. ‘They wouldn’t listen,’ the Guy insists to the Girl when she asks about the songs he wrote himself. ‘I listen,’ she replies, and just like that their love story with music starts. Later on, a CD player with the Guy’s half-written songs runs out of batteries. The Girl scrambles around her small apartment, looking even in the tv remote for replacements, but there are none. She quietly borrows some coins out of her child’s piggy bank (whispering a promise to pay her back) and inserts the newly bought batteries right in the corner shop. She’s barely out the door before she’s singing her lyrics with headphones on and all.

Carney often writes love letters to cities (perhaps without meaning to) in his films. I would love to write about how Begin Again is a love letter to New York, but Once is definitely a love letter to Dublin. This scene where the Girl walks down the streets at night in her pyjamas with headphones on confirms it. Carney doesn’t insist on clearing his background, so the corners of the frame are filled with kids outside convenience stores. In the opening scene, the casual shoppers on Grafton Street are totally natural. Some productions use a big budget to intricately design every tiny detail in every frame, but for something that is so deeply about normal people, Carney takes advantage of his production opportunities and envelopes the viewer in the real world.

Which is why the element of class and money that hinders these characters feels all the more relatable. Today, the Girl explains at the start, is a really good day because she got a cleaning job in a big house. Back in her apartment, the Girl has a daughter, and a husband back home in the Czech Republic (even if their relationship is strained). These responsibilities mean that she can’t (and won’t) follow the traditional love story beats we’re used to: when the Guy continually asks her to stay out with him into the evening, she says simply ‘I have responsibilities. I have to go home.’ But there’s no sense that she’s sacrificing herself because of this very real situation; she still makes her music and helps him make his, even if he doesn’t see that clearly until the end.

What seems to make this weight of responsibility and lack of money different for her than for him is the fact that she clearly isn’t alone. When she takes the Guy home one day, to a big building spilt into numerous small apartments, three men from across the hall come in to watch football since she has the only TV in the building. Encouraged by this, the Guy takes her into his own community: another crammed house full of people, this time alive with Irish folk music, guitars and fiddles (what was that about a love letter to Dublin?). The fact that the film focuses on story rather than aesthetic fits so thematically with the fact that the community is much more important than the money (or lack thereof) in these peoples’ lives.

So, the magic of this little indie is in the music, yes, and the witty dialogue, and the dedicated performances of its leads. But it’s also in Carney’s love of people, and the kindness of strangers. Guy and Girl only really succeed in their love story with music because of the man in the music shop who lets the Girl play the piano whenever she wants. Because the Guy and his father don’t charge anything for fixing her hoover, because they see her and her situation. Because, when they visit the bank to try and gather together the €2,000 to record in a proper studio for the weekend, the loans banker listens to their cassette tape and ends up standing on the desk with a guitar singing (not very well), his childhood dream of being a performer on full display before he signs the loan agreement for them.

They make their album because buskers on the street are up for helping out a fellow yet-to-be-discovered musician, and because the music producer in the studio (dubiously) listens to them and hears something special. This is where you’d generally expect Guy and Girl to get together; they’ve helped each other achieve their dreams so they’re obviously meant for each other. But life doesn’t really work like that, and Carney knows that. In the end, the Guy decides to go to London and find the woman he’s been writing songs for. But on his visit to say goodbye, the Girl is working. Instead, he buys her the piano she loves from the music shop as he heads off to the airport. A bittersweet ending, as is Carney’s signature style. In the end, they were both strangers guided by the kindness they showed one another. And I bet you’ve forgotten what resolution the camera quality is by the end credits.


by Daisy Leigh-Phippard

Daisy studied film production at Arts University Bournemouth and freelances in the industry with the aspiration of becoming a director and screenwriter. A lover of independent and foreign film with female perspectives, her favourites include Pan’s LabyrinthThe HandmaidenFrida and anything that has ever come out of Hayao Miyazaki’s brain. You can see her work on her website and follow her on TwitterLetterboxd and Instagram.

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