Musicals won six Best Picture Oscars in the 1950s and 1960s, but only one since ("
" in 2002). Why aren't movie musicals terribly popular anymore? Americans will often tell you that it's just not realistic for somebody standing on a street corner to burst into song, accompanied by 100 violins. Chicago
Common as this criticism is, it's a rather unpersuasive explanation because we're perfectly happy with many other implausible artistic conventions. We seldom scoff that a novel's omniscient third person narrator presumes a point of view that only God enjoys; that stage plays are ridiculous because normal people don't converse in complete sentences while all facing toward an invisible fourth wall; or that, unlike in sitcoms, families don't actually sit around in vast living rooms cracking wise.
If lack of realism truly is the cause of the musical's decline, then "Once," a tiny Irish musical written and directed by John Carney, should win box office success comparable to the enthusiasm it has inspired in critics. "Once" overcomes this common objection by giving its hero (played by an oversized red-headed teddy bear named Glen Hansard, the guitarist in the last Irish musical, 1991's "The Commitments") a practical reason to break into song on the sidewalk: he's a street musician who does indeed routinely pour out his heart, as battered as his old acoustic guitar, to the passing multitudes. So, the musical interludes in the film are perfectly plausible.
A flower girl (young Czech singer Markéta Irglová) tosses ten Euro cents into the busker's guitar case, in return for which she feels entitled to inquire about who this "you" is in all the singer-songwriter's lovelorn lyrics. Finding out that that his girlfriend has moved to
Londonwhile he works in his Da's vacuum cleaner-repair shop, she shows up the next day dragging her malfunctioning like a cat being taken for a misguided walk. At the instrument store where a genial owner lets the girl play the piano, the two work on his songs. Hoover
Love blossoms, but gets sublimated into making music. (The film's R-rating is solely due to the inability of the modern Irish to utter a phrase without the word "fook" in it.) After a single rejected pass, his Irish sexual diffidence gets the better of him. And, being a folk rock-strumming beta male, he's a bit of a sap for this cute but unreadable girl who turns out to be a single mum. Or is her ex-husband in
even her ex at all? Anyway, on film, unconsummated relationships are the most romantic. "Once" is amply romantic. Prague
The unanimously rapturous reviews that "Once" has garnered might stem more from how its minimalism is convenient for critics, who find it easy to write about stripped-down conceptual breakthroughs -- The old stage musical is reinvented as a busker musical! -- just as rock critics preferred the simplistic Ramones to grandiose Led Zeppelin. In truth, a great musical, such as "Singin' in the Rain," is overstuffed with delights, which "Once," as pleasing as it is, definitely is not.
I suspect the decline of the musical, though, was not really due to a sudden demand for naturalism among audiences (who had no problem enjoying absurdly surrealistic music videos in the 1980s), but because electric guitars, which aren't suited to musical theatre because they drown out lyrics, came to dominate radio from the 1960s onward. It takes a number of hearings to learn to appreciate new melodies, so without the chance to hear a show's tunes on the air beforehand, the musical came to be at a disadvantage.
"Once" gets around this problem by repeating each original song several times. Moreover, most of Hansard's compositions feature much the same sing-songy alternation of high and low notes, so the melodies all sound a lot alike. The "Once" soundtrack won't make anybody forget "
," but it's a reasonably effective solution to the modern musical's lack of radio exposure. Oklahoma
"Once" is set among the marginally employed in prosperous contemporary
, thronged by immigrants. It's gladdening to see long-suffering Dublin , which sent forth her hungry children to the ends of the earth, now wealthy enough to attract the poor of the world. And yet, watching Ireland hurrying toward a postmodern Euro-blandness in which it becomes so diverse that it's just like everywhere else in Europe, I fear we'll miss the Irish Ireland when we eventually realize its gone. Ireland
Rated R for language.
September 26, 2007
My review from The American Conservative of the micro-budget Irish musical that might be still be playing: