Tone is everything. It’s not so much the idea anymore in films, it’s the filmmaker’s “take” on the idea. For some stark insight into the difference between studio and indie films, and between American cinema and foreign cinema, these are two films worth checking out. “Music and Lyrics” with Hugh Grant and Drew Barrymore is your studio heavyweight and joining the fray in a big way is the Irish film “Once” which started as a darling on the festival circuit, winning the World Cinema Audience Award at Sundance and subsequently being bought by Fox Searchlight. Both of these films are about a singer-songwriter who meets a woman who helps him with his music even as their work together threatens to blossom into a messy relationship. Same concept, but the takes are worlds apart.
In This Corner
The plot of “Once” could not be simpler. A decent guy (Glen Hansard) who works repairing vacuums also has a life outside the shop as a busker playing in downtown Dublin. Along comes a Czech woman (Marketa Irglova) selling flowers on the same street, and she’s a pianist and a budding song-writer herself. The only place where they can play together is a music store, but eventually he asks her to help him record some tracks before he heads off to London to seek his musical destiny and re-connect with an ex-girlfriend. She’s in Dublin with an infant even though her husband is still ambiguously back in the old country. That’s pretty much it, and it’s 88 minutes of wonderful coming at you in just about every way you can imagine. People watching this film are sitting in theaters with big smiles on their faces.
In That Corner
In this romantic comedy, has-been and former 1980s pop star Alex Fletcher (Hugh Grant) gets the comeback chance of a lifetime thanks to quirky plant-healing lyricist Sophie (Drew Barrymore). When a teen singing sensation improbably asks Alex to write a song and record the duet with her, Alex can’t refuse. There’s only the one problem, something about having writer’s block with lyrics. Naturally, Alex and Sophie sit down to write and their chemistry turns solid gold. There’s not a moment in the film where you actually wonder what is going to happen but Hugh Grant still remains the very definition of charm in films. He’s sometimes phenomenal, but always good, and he’s right on the money with this role. It’s sweet, the music is surprisingly good, and the humor is only occasionally forced.
A studio film with two huge stars (“Music and Lyrics”) often follows the by-the-numbers screenplay construction that seems to get taught from every street corner in the US. It mandates certain key plot points and a story that gets bigger and bigger. So, naturally, the perky gardner is going to fix more things for Grant than his house plants. Then they are going to write a song that is more than just good, it has to be great and a chart topper. Then they will have to perform it on a stage before practically the entire world.
In a foreign indie film (“Once”), however, a small story has the luxury of staying small. The people involved with the song don’t have to enjoy a success beyond simply getting something recorded because that, alone, is a huge victory for them. It’s not like “Ray” or “Walk the Line” or “That Thing You Do” or any of those films where it gets radio play, then becomes a hit and we see the small-timers corrupted by life before getting real again. Nope, in this film, they start real and stay real. And that is like a breath of very fresh air.
Both of these films build their action on two people — possibly romantically linked — who start to build music together, note-by-note and word-by-word. One of them makes the process big, frivolous fun and the other makes it as real as watching a documentary. It’s all the difference in the world.
And the winner is…
I really, truly liked “Music and Lyrics” as a pleasant diversion — it’s not a bad rental at all. In a previous Smackdown with “Wimbeldon,” it took the decision. This is just one of those times when something is good and predictable and it’s not enough. “Once” is great and surprising and wonderful. Find it in the town where you live at whatever indie theater it’s playing at and go there and see it as soon as you possibly can. You owe it to yourself. Then, when you’re done, go to iTunes and buy the soundtrack and play those songs that you just can’t get out of your mind. We can’t resist — “ONCE” is so good it’s worth seeing two times — once in the theaters and twice when it comes out on DVD.