I've seen two movie musicals in the past few weeks. Both are worth seeing. Across the Universe, with its big production values and marquee name director, is pretty good. Once, with its shoestring budget and lesser-known musician-actors, is downright wonderful. Julie Taymor's rhapsody on the Beatles canon as seen through life in archetypal '60s America is a paean to some of the best singer-songwriters ever as well as to the events and movements that defined the baby-boomer generation's passage from innocence into experience. Half the fun is trying to guess which song or which character is next to appear. Yes, all the main names are taken from songs and almost all the plot points are inspired by things that really happened. It's like a really well-made feature-length music video. The kind you wouldn't mind watching again. But not necessarily a totally unique work of art or one that inspires deep affection. Besides nostalgia, there's not much willing one moment into the next, and I couldn't help feeling the length of the film between scenes.
Where Across the Universe might fall short, Once succeeds with subtle, winning verve. Glen Hansard (of the Frames) and Marketa Irglova, singer-songwriters in real life, and now a real couple, express what it's like to create music, on your own and with others, and what it's like to fall in love with someone with whom you share that love of music. As H. noted after we saw it on Sunday, the film shows that love can reach fulfillment in different and just as powerful ways from the traditional story of cinematic romance. It's a tearjerker, but I found myself crying more because of how beautiful the small revelations it presents are than because of how bittersweet the story is. Early on in the film, which at an hour and a half is just right, there is a scene where Glen teaches Marketa a song he is working on. Some movies might begin this scene, then cut away to the next bit of action before it's through. But the camera patiently watches as the duo very believably grow the song from its seeds, building it up together. It's amazingly intimate.