Sometime toward the end of 2007, I read a tiny little article in some local paper about this Irish movie that was showing as part of a film festival.  Once, it was called, and was a musical that defied the label.  I tried to lure some friends to go with me, but none would have a bar of it and Heidy- my fellow fan of all things Irish- actually was in Ireland.

So I watched it alone.  I’d say about ten minuted into the movie, I knew it would become one of my favourites.

It’s unsurprising that reviewers compared it to my other favourite films: Before Sunrise and Before Sunset.  Both films revolve around a man and a woman, walking and talking and getting to know each other over a brief period of time.  But unlike Linklater’s twin masterpieces, Once has music.

And not just any music.  Folky, guitary, troubadoury music.  While I have wandered across genres in the last few years, the music of Once was like bread and butter to my musical being.  And it had that most wonderful of things: a song in 5/4 time.  The actors, Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova, were really musicians, moonlighting as actors in the film and performing songs they had written.

Naturally, I bought the soundtrack.  And the DVD, when I was in the US a few months later.

It’s a lovely story, what happened next.  Once was a very small movie.  It is great, but it’s greatness is largely due to its utter lack of pretense.  It does not try to be anything other than what it is.  If you’ve not seen it, you should.

It was a tiny film, though, filmed illegally on the streets of Dublin for an ultimate cost of less than one hundred thousand Euros.  They submitted it to Sundance.  It was rejected.  Hansard and Irglova figured they’d just sell copies of the DVD at the back of gigs.  Then, one day at a country screening, someone came up to the filmmakers and informed them he was from Sundance, and would like to screen the film there.

The rest, they say, is history.  The film became an indie hit, grossing 10 million at the US Box office.  Then, long after it was out on DVD, it was nominated for, and unexpectantly won, the Best Song Oscar.

It was one of those classic moments that people remember from Oscars- the tiny film winning, Irglova being denied the chance to speak, then Jon Stewart bringing her back out after the break to say her words- and what lovely words they were.

Tonight, Heidy and I had the amazing priviledge of seeing Hansard and Irglova live at the Sydney Opera House.

What is it with these Sydney Festival gigs?  They just seem on another plane.  Last year’s Sufjan Stevens concert was incredible, and tonights show very nearly topped it.

We knew the evening had to be special within moments of arriving at the Opera House: for who should be standing on the steps, but Hansard and Irglova themselves, with a guitar, playing and singing for a group that had formed.  They only left when they had to (“We’re on any minute”) and most of the crowd bolted to make their seats in time- only just, in our case.

The atmosphere of the show was unparalleled, the songs they sang remarkable, and every story was perfectly told- from Hansard quoting The Castle and professing his great excitement that Dale Kerrigan himself had been at the previous night’s show to Irglova’s sweet-but-awkward dedication to an unknown relative somewhere in the crowd.  Hansard and the Frames performed for years and years before Once, finding fame in Ireland, but were little-known elsewhere.  His comfort with being on stage was abundantly evident.

And we sang with them when they invited us to- three, maybe four times.  In the final moments of the third encore- it was the gig that kept on giving- Hansard demanded we all stand, sing and dance to the final song.

The music was wonderful, but it was Hansard’s remarkable ability to pull it all together and make the show a kind of community experience that made the night what it was.  Special.  Very, very special.

Oh, and I cannot fail to mention the incredible violinist who accompanied them (along with the rest of The Frames).  He played a solo piece while the others took a break, and it was hauntingly beautiful.

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