So you’ve seen the 2006 indie hit Once. You either knew of stars Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova first -- he, frontman of the wildly popular Irish band The Frames, she a contributing harmonist and pianist on the group’s albums -- or you discovered their music thanks to the engaging, understated intimacy of director John Carney’s musical rom-dram (and the Oscar for best original song that each artist won for the film’s wrenchingly beautiful “Falling Slowly”).
Well, I’m not writing this for you (though do read on; we’re equally enthused about the subject). This documentary fills in the gaps between Glen and Marketa’s pre and post-Once dynamic – we’re given a backstory about the real-life Guy and Girl we fell in love with somewhere between the fixing of a Hoover and the bogarting of a public piano. Obviously hardcore fans are going to rush out and see The Swell Season after its world premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival. Obviously.
This is for the rest of you – those who know nothing of the duo, or remain unaware of the relevance their converging personal plights usher into your own private little world.
Allow me, for a moment, to use those archetypal titles from Once to illustrate what’s at play in The Swell Season. Guy has never known anything but his art – he’s thrown himself into his passion, but is plagued by deep-seated parental pressures, crushing anxiety to continue performing after recent success in his field, and a fear of being forced to abandon his dreams, as his troubled father did. Girl has known Guy since she was a child (he, 18 years her senior), began working with him at the vulnerable age of 13, developed a crush, which – perpetuated by their shared professional triumphs – developed into full-blown love once she was of age. The two begin a relationship and inspire each other. But, as Girl matures and develops her own persona and Guy retreats into the cave of his own personal demons, their romance unravels.
Sound familiar? Of course it does. There’s a little bit of all of us in that Guy and Girl. We may not be famous musicians constantly under public scrutiny, but we’ve known that naïve longing or that suffocation of inherited demons – that outgrowing of your partner, the battle between head and heart that ensues.
What I’m saying is it’s nearly impossible to watch The Swell Season, regardless of level of fandom, and not relate to at least some small part of Glen and Marketa’s struggles. Which is why it ushers such a surprising emotional wallop. I ain’t too proud to admit that I cried multiple times. And I shed those tears as much for myself as I did for them.
The account begins quietly enough, showing grainy footage of a scene from Once where Guy asks Girl to write lyrics to his melody (one of the narrative’s many cases of art imitating life). We’re then ushered into a hotel room, where Marketa meticulously cuts Glen’s hair. “You’re brilliant,” Glen says. “Don’t say that yet,” Marketa warns between snips. Their relationship is oddly unpracticed and emotionally distant -- never once do we see them kiss, and even holding hands or embracing seems a rarity. Their awkwardness to overcome years of friendship is palpable – their bond instead seems fueled by the abnormally natural fruitfulness of their collaboration (Glen recalls thinking, “Oh, my God, things are so easy with this girl – things are just happening” after they first began writing songs together). There is a push and pull throughout the progression of their tale: Marketa first following Glen’s older, wiser lead, and sacrificing herself to the blinding light of media scrutiny and fan expectations, despite her discomfort; Glen, an experienced showman, unable to understand Marketa’s inability to conform to the demands that come with fame. When Marketa eventually begins asserting herself, the two embody passengers on a runaway train, barreling toward the inevitable crash.
Cinematographer (and co-director) Chris Dapkins captures the post-Once travels of Glen and Marketa’s spin-off band The Swell Season (semi-enfolded into The Frames; many of the members come along for the ride) in stunningly crisp black and white imagery. From locales in Ireland and the Czech Republic to a bus tour through the United States; within the walls of cemeteries and family households; privy to private recording sessions and backstage outbursts; performing for hordes of fans in a theater or signing autographs beneath a marquee – his lens makes high art of every scenario.
The directing team – Dapkins, Nick August-Perna and Carlo Mirabella-Davis – similarly refuses to look away, serving up resoundingly poignant (oftentimes uncomfortable) moments. The burdened, resigned look on Glen’s face as his father recounts that he knew – while watching his son accept his Oscar – that, “He’d done it for me.” A quiet, almost desperate, embrace shared between Marketa and Glen – their arms intertwined, their heads bowed into each other’s shoulders – as their bandmates and crew revel over celebratory post-gig drinks. A heated argument between Glen and Marketa at an outdoor café – Glen’s frustrated, angry expression, and Marketa’s almost childlike disappointment as she attempts to assert herself in a delicate, wavering manner. Their tale is a series of moments, reverberating with as much emotive pitch as the movie’s gorgeous soundtrack.
What is truly tragic about Glen and Marketa’s love story, to me – and what I think The Swell Season illustrates brilliantly through the intercutting of concert footage throughout this careening journey – is that all of their pain is played out best not in their face-to-face discussions, but through their music. One moment they are backstage motivating each other like old chums, arms slung around shoulders, nervous laughter, pregnant pauses – the next, Marketa is on stage, soulfully begging into a microphone, “I'm on my knees in front of him, but he doesn't seem to see me. With all his troubles on his mind, he's looking right through me. And I'm letting myself down satisfying you ... I wish that you could see that I have my troubles, too.” It’s enough to make you want to reach through the screen and squeeze her hand. Conversely, you understand why Glen, standing only inches away from her, cannot do the same.
Perhaps it’s as their stage tech portentously noted, when discussing life on the road: “You gotta put everything into perspective or it’ll get away from ya.” All the more bittersweet, then: The Swell Season stands as evidence that we’re united by a common struggle to grasp our own versions of that perspective.