Directors: Nick August-Perna, Chris Dapkins, Carlo Mirabella-Davis
Producer: Carlo Mirabella-Davis
Starring: Markéta Irglová, Glen Hansard
MPAA Rating: NR
Running time: 91 min.
This review is brought to the third row from our good buddy, Jim Laczkowski, from The Director’s Club Podcast. “Once” you’ve finished reading this review, go check out their really great podcast which focuses on a new director each episode. Thanks Jim!
There is a moment in The Swell Season documentary where both Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova get undressed and run naked into the ocean waters together. You see everything and because of who they are, it’s not quite as shocking given they are so musically and emotionally naked as well. Later as the film begins to wind down, they both revisit the same beach. This time they are alone. Rather than being a lazy visual metaphor that might sound cheesy in text, it represents the shifting of tides that were never meant to consistently bind two people together. The Swell Season documentary is less about the romanticism behind being a successful touring musician, and more about the harsh realities that one must confront in that very imperfect and confusing world of success and recognition. There’s also a truly memorable and hysterical sequence where Glen and Marketa are looking at one version of the Once movie poster, and Glen becomes more and more upset about all the Photoshopping and image manipulation that’s been done, and one of the things that really bugs him is that they’re holding hands, something which they never do in the actual movie. They make light fun of the marketing behind the movie, but they also treat their work with the utmost respect for each other as well as the audience. The Swell Season documentary beautifully showcases the ups and downs of not only being a performing artist, but being romatically involved with one as well. Thankfully the subjects of this film seem completely charming and ego-free as there characters did in the fictional version of their story, which was easily my favorite film of 2006.
The movie, Once, did more than strike a chord with me. At the time, I was playing DIY folk shows in people’s homes. It was just me and my guitar, along with a room full of friends and/or strangers. Throughout the years, I’ve worked with many musicians and have had lasting relationships, most of them platonic. However, never before did a movie capture what it is really like to create music but have the act of artistic expression serve as the impetus for a potential romantic connection. Obviously, in Once, that romantic connection doesn’t become fully realized as we might expect as the closing credits rolled. We were just grateful for the experience and time shared with those two lovely characters who shared a similar passion. It felt like Before Sunrise without the pompousness or self-congratulatory intellect behind the art of conversation. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed Before Sunrise but the ultimate example of what it really means to fall in love is best represented in that film’s superior sequel, Before Sunset. In that film, realities slap both of them in the face – the fact that idealistic tendencies towards love and maintaining that euphoria associated with love, isn’t always realistic and can even be damaging when confronted with high expectations. If Once was a bit more like Before Sunrise, then the follow-up story told as The Swell Season documentary form is Before Sunset. Even if Once was a narrative fiction, one can certainly look at the film as a true story of sorts especially since the two characters in the film went on to become romantically involved and to win an Oscar for that transcendent, immortal song “Falling Slowly.”
We catch up with Glen and Marketa in the midst of high expectations as well as beginning the process of recording their follow-up album to the Once soundtrack. There’s mainly footage of them on tour, but very rarely do we bare witness to a full-length stage presentation of their music. The footage mainly consists of them sharing moments of quiet intimacy or silent and/or vocalized discontentment. Nights of partying on a bus are on display, but you also watch them sing acapella amongst friends all while passing out in each other’s arms. There are highlights of what makes their music so vital and talented. The songs seem to be coming from a very real place, rather than an extension of a process. The way Glen screams and croons between falsetto and primal yells is enough to give even the most jaded indie rocker goosebumps. I’ve seen Glen in various incarnations at least a half dozen times throughout the years. He comes across both on stage, and in this documentary, as a sincere, emotionally-expressive individual who can share a good laugh over a pint, but always acknowledge his feelings in a way that seems productive and imparative. Marketa is a bit more introverted, and of course, I instantly respond to her on a personal level despite leaning more towards Glen as a songwriter. She has reservations about so many things, but not about music. She’s hesitant to embrace the touring lifestyle to the point where a very uncomfortable scene plays out in which she ponders the futility of taking photographs with fans. This is one of those moments that stand out as a turning point for both the band and the romantic relationship between her touring partner. Glen seems selfless in every respect, to the point of putting the needs of the fan ahead of his own. Marketa feels differently in a way that doesn’t come across as standoffish, but geniune to serve her own sense of self-respect. She adores the fans, but feels both the fans and the musicians deserve better than a photograph. Watching the film however, is not entirely a downer by any means so despite the outcome, don’t assume it’s all tears along the way. You will come out of this movie having incredibly vivid memories of Glen’s parents, as they tell stories of the past, but manage to exude a joyous wonder about how their son has gone on to such acclaim. There is a parallel that comes up later in the film between Glen and his father that completely moved me, in such a beautiful way. That moment alone is worth your time and attention to seek this out, even if you’ve never heard of “The Swell Season” or have no interest in this genre of music. It’s one of those moments in a documentary that go beyond the subjects and into the heart of the audience.
A B&W behind-the-scenes documentary that captures a band in turmoil is nothing we haven’t seen before. Rarely is there a stylish flare to the proceedings, but instead directors Nick August-Perna, Chris Dapkins, and Carlo Mirabella-Davis, capture a raw intensity that feels utterly organic that makes you feel like you are right there in the room or in the audience. Clearly, the subjects of the film are not uncomfortable with sharing their most personal intimacies in front of a crowd and this is what makes the film stand out all the more. Their opennness is apparent in both the music they put on a record, as well as in their stage performance. However, nothing can prepare you for one particular scene, that in my mind, stands out as one of the single most realistic portrayals of a couple sharing a moment of miscommunication as well as nail-biting awkwardness that doesn’t bode well for their future. Marketa sees Glen as someone who is rejecting the fame and attention, but Glen feels far more differently. He finds it strange that his mother loves bragging about the Oscar, but doesn’t reject the notoriety. Marketa finds his perception of this to be frustrating, and if there’s one scene that stands out above everything else in The Swell Season, it has to be the outdoor dinner scene that uncomfortably plays out right before our eyes. Not only does the viewer bare witness to the inevitable breakup, but the clues leading up to why they HAD to break up become more and more apparent as the film plays out. She is in her early 20s, while he is in late 30s. They rarely begin to see eye-to-eye and eventually take different paths, even if it’s clear that Glen doesn’t necessarily want this although he knows it’s for the best. It takes courage for the filmmakers not to demand a set-in-stone answer to why things didn’t work out. An audience can certainly surmise as to why things failed, but it’s never spelled out. Much like the success they had with the movie, Once… their breakup simply just happened and may in fact needed to happen so they could learn and grow from the experience. The film makes you believe that in both conversations with them separately, as well as through their actions.
The Swell Season documentary is right up there as one of the very best movies I have ever seen about a band sharing an existential crisis that affects them to where they can barely grasp what’s happening, or what to do next. I won’t lie to you – it helps that I happen to be a huge fan of this band and the people in it. It has a high liklihood of ending up on my top ten for 2011 for more than a personal bias towards the subject matter. My other favorite music documentaries include Gimmie Shelter, I Am Trying To Break Your Heart, and particularly, Some Kind Of Monster. Each of these showcase a moment in time where a musician’s faith is tested and challenged, and so much more is demanding of them. Can they overcome a devastating incident that was never intended nor expected? It can range from baring something as horrendous as the famous Hell’s Angels stabbing in Gimmie Shelter, to attempting to carry on a relationship in a band where the two lead singers become very different people as a result of fame and uncertainty, which is what The Swell Season flawlessly captures. There is no defining or single reason as to why Marketa and Glen weren’t compatible as a couple, despite being able to see both the highs and lows they’ve shared over a few years. When it came time to recording new songs, it’s clear that they had separated and seeing them live post-breakup was a bit heartbreaking to witness. They didn’t quite smile as much, despite acknowledging how much they love the songs they’ve made together. There was a disconnect between them as people, but thankfully, the music and their drive to creatively share their feelings with the world managed to overcome all struggles. This documentary encapsulates the difficult balancing act that ensues when artistic expression and a romantic connection interweave. Once did this as well, but the romance was subtle and never in the forefront other than when they wrote songs together. Music is a powerful force that binds us, but it can also have an opposite effect when one is confronted with circumstances that the other never anticipated. Glen and Marketa are eternally grateful for the Oscar and the lengthy touring process they shared. There is no doubt that this film celebrates the grandeur and spirituality that can accompany a live performance – both from the perspective of audience and performer. The remarkable achievement of The Swell Season is that it documents a relationship that was fueled by the same love of music that brought them together. However, we all grow and change over time, and much like the great romantic fictional films of our time (Annie Hall, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Blue Valentine), The Swell Season documentary brings to light that not all love is meant to be timeless, even if the songs and the passion behind the music would’ve indicated otherwise.