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'Once' With Feeling: Small Musical Has a Big Heart

Once is about to come into your life and make it whole. It's an unpretentious slice of musical, romantic enchantment that's low-key in concept but completely winning in execution. It's also the first film in years to mix music and story in the light-fingered way Richard Lester did in the faster-paced Beatles classics.

The pleasures of this film start with a ton of richly melodic music from Glen Hansard, lead singer of the Irish group The Frames, and Marketa Irglova, a young Czech musician he's collaborated with.

Filmmaker John Carney, himself a former member of The Frames, at first thought of using Hansard only for his songwriting skills. But at a certain point, he realized that the singer would be better than more-polished actors could be.

Both Hansard and Irglova (who was only 17 when "Once" was shot) bring an unforced intimacy to the film that is one of its strengths. To watch their characters interact is to eavesdrop on some of life's smallest but most valuable moments. We invest in these people completely, and they do not let us down.

Once opens with Hansard's nameless busker, or street musician, singing his heart out on the streets of Dublin. There he meets an equally nameless young woman who is also an impoverished musician. Naturally, they decide to make music together — and soon enough they start to regard each other with more than professional interest.

While all of this may sound obvious and forced, it doesn't play that way. This film's plot may be romantic, but it's modern enough to avoid playing out the way audiences will anticipate. The music is so satisfying and the characters so appealing that we believe this is all happening right in front of our eyes. We fall for each of these young people at the precise moment they are falling for each other — and what could be better than that?

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Kenneth Turan is the film critic for the Los Angeles Times and NPR's Morning Edition, as well as the director of the Los Angeles Times Book Prizes. He has been a staff writer for the Washington Post and TV Guide, and served as the Times' book review editor.