As loath as we are to use superlatives, it is nonetheless accurate to say that "Once" (2006) is the best musical this reviewer has ever seen. It is also perhaps the most original film musical since the inception of the medium. Shot sparsely and cheaply with a handheld, digital camera in and around Dublin, it stars two non-acting musicians, essentially playing versions of themselves. They play and sing original songs that they have written, and the music is not beholden to any traditional musical theatre conventions.
Glen Hansard plays an Irish street musician who is quickly befriended by Markéta Irglová, and young Czech girl who sings and plays piano. At first glance, Irglová threatens to be nothing more than the dreaded Manic Pixie Dream Girl, but to our relief she turns out to be a complex and relatable character.
Everything that matters is great in this film. The acting is organic and lovable, the cinematography and editing are beautiful but not distracting. What makes this the greatest musical we have seen, however, is the music, or, more specifically, how and when the music happens. There is a scene early in the picture when Irglová and Hansard go to a music shop. She sits down in front of a grand piano, then he begins playing a tune on his guitar. She joins in on piano and they both begin to sing. As we write this, we discover that words really fail to express the magic of how this scene unfolds. To attempt to describe it further would do a disservice to the film and any reader who has yet to see it.
Nothing more can be said. See "Once", and witness the deconstruction and redefinition of what a film musical is.