“Wow. That was nice. Did you write that?”
With that line concludes one of the most life affirming moments I’ve ever seen in a film.
The film is “Once,” and yes it’s the film that made it to Broadway, and it’s become one of my favorite movies.
I can tell you the plot, because the film is spoiler proof. There’s really not much to say. It’s almost as if they called the film “Once” because “Once Upon a Time” would have been too complicated.
A guy (the credits just call him “The Guy”) meets a Girl (credits: “The Girl) in Dublin. They are clearly meant for each other, but circumstances, unfortunately, dictate that this isn’t meant to be. So they play out their relationship via music, and the film chronicles The Guy’s quest to put a band together, record his music, and make his way to London to pursue a career.
That’s really all you need to know. And that’s pretty much the whole plot.
The film’s director, John Carney, has made two other films (also favorites of mine) that celebrate the power of music, “Sing Street” and “Begin Again.” Each of them, like “Once,” have particular moments that have made me turn to the person with whom I’m watching the film, and say “is this great, or what?”
And “Once,” like “Sing Street” and “Begin Again,” has many of these scenes, but one of them stands out in particular.
The Guy has found a studio to record his material. The Girl, a tough negotiator, gets a good price for their session.
The Guy, The Girl, and the other musicians arrive at the studio, a decidedly ragtag group. They set up, and as they do, we see the recording engineer on the phone to his wife or girlfriend, saying that no, he can’t get together with her, he’s trapped for a few hours with bunch of oddballs (he uses an adjective to decribe them that I will not print here).
In that moment, we know this engineer. No doubt, he aspired to work in a major studio, recording major artists, and mixing their work. But no, that didn’t happen, so there he is, running a small studio, where, no doubt, one lame musician after another has come in, and he must wearily go through the motions of recording their work.
So the band—led by Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova, who won an Oscar for “Falling Slowly,” which is a feature song in this film—start playing the song “When Your Mind’s Made Up,” which I, by now, have listened to many, many times. We see the recording engineer reading a music magazine, barely paying attention, fiddling with the dials every so often.
They keep playing. The song kicks in, a 5/4 piece that’s beyond catchy. We cut back to the recording engineer.
The recording engineer looks up from his magazine. His eyebrows lift.
Wait a minute, we can see the recording engineer thinking to himself. These guys are good. He sits up slightly, a bit more engaged in his work.
They keep playing. The song soars.
And now we see the recording engineer, smiling, the magazine forgotten, completely focused on his work. The song has captivated him, and he no longer is someone who just views what he does as a day job. The musicians have snared him, and we can see him remembering everything that got him interested in this line of work, the craft of preserving a magical moment, the better to deliver it to as many people as possible.
The song peaks, and ends. The musicians finish. The Guy holds out his hands to signal that the musicians must remain completely silent for a few seconds, as they must always do when they’re finished recording a track. Then they’re done, and The Guy looks at the engineer, wide eyed, his face saying “did you get that?”
We cut back to the engineer, at a loss for words. He’s part of this moment now, and we get the feeling that these musicians have made his whole life worthwhile.
“Wow,” he says, “that was nice. Did you write that?”
Yes, he says, he did, and as this sequence goes on, we see the way a recording studio can become a second home. The musicians eat meals as the session goes on, bring their kids into one of the side rooms where they take breaks between recording. And then, when they’re done, the engineer takes them for a ride with their recordings, the better to do the traditional test of listening to recorded tracks in a car to hear how they sound to someone driving to work while listening to music.
It’s just…perfect. There is more said in the power of music to transform a person, to make them see all that is positive and good in life, in that scene than in just about anything else I’ve seen, heard or read.
And, as the title of the film reminds us, this glorious thing happened in a small recording studio, just as it no doubt happens in other small recording studios and garages and bedrooms. Music brought people together, and changed them. It happened once, and this scene reminds us that it will happen, across the world, many, many more times.