Just right for a true romance

Once in a while a musical is fresh and new: Woody Allen's Everyone Says I Love You was attention-getting when his ordinary actors broke into song as if they were off the streets of a 1930's musical. Baz Lurhmann's Moulin Rouge! took the genre to expressionistic flights. And now back to earth in John Carney's Once, a realist drama/musical set in contemporary Dublin; here a street singer seems to fall in love with a passing by young woman with Hoover vacuum repair needs, which he can do in his day job.

And that's about it?two lonely people, one separated from his unfaithful love and the other from her Czech husband. This 2007 Sundance Audience Award winner never strays from the documentary style while, as in Woody's film, songs break out but with much more natural flow. The truthfulness comes from Glen Hansard, lead singer of the Frames, and Marketa Irglova, a Czech musician he has known and worked with before. Their love and respect for each other make their performances two of the best this year.

Neither lead has a name, so it's easy to universalize their experience: the uncertainty of love, emphasized by her unsubtitled Czech response to his question about whether she still loves her husband or not, and the unglamorous ties each person has to a mate, albeit estranged as in this case. The love that has grown for these two impoverished artists is expressed in the songs, first about lost love and then about present love. Hansard has charisma that demands you listen to the lyrics while you enjoy his melody; Irglova's accompanying piano and voice reveal the heart of a poet and the pluck of a heroine.

Director John Carney was a member of the Frames, so his understanding of their Gaelic themes and Hansard's talent makes an engaging musical romance. The additional touch of documentary style (some hand held, jittery camera; some blurry close-ups) gives cred to the everyman aura of two talented people finding love without making love and finding song to express that maddening occurrence of being beholden to someone else and determined to do the right thing, not a recipe for lyrical music but a sweet, melancholy score just right for a true romance.