DVD Review: Once

20th Century Fox
Movie •••• Picture •••½ Sound •••• Extras ••••

One of last year's few bona fide sleeper hits - and a strong contender on many critics' best-of-the-year lists - Once is a small gem that quietly manages to reinvent the movie musical. Writer/director John Carney knew that his intentionally low-budget, homespun, handmade tale of a struggling street musician would only work with "musicians who could half-act," rather than actors who couldn't make great music. Fortunately, he had at his disposal the perfect star for his film: Irish singer/songwriter Glenn Hansard, whose real-life band (the Frames) is finally getting the recognition and popularity it richly deserves. Hansard contributed a few of his existing songs and wrote some new ones to suit the story - and the result is a film that's first about music, but in an intimate and organic way that has never been attempted on film.

The movie shines on DVD not only because its casual and personal tone suits home theater, but also because the extras maintain that low-key aesthetic. Two documentaries and a conventional commentary all feature Carney, Hansard, and co-star Markéta Irglová warmly sharing their personal experiences in making the film. But the topper is an additional 36-minute "musical commentary," for which the trio reconvenes just to talk about the songs - and to let us hear them again in a different way. This wonderful feature also makes it easy to access the songs at will without skipping around the disc manually to find them.

Although the disc does a fine job with the film's relatively raw formal content (Once was shot entirely on digital video by a tiny crew, and it shows), no one will mistake image quality here for that of a big-budget Hollywood production. But the movie would only have been diminished by a sharper, cleaner, more digitally processed disc. Even the soundtrack is a perfect fit for the material; although it's in Dolby Surround overall, it delivers the songs in the rich, familiar stereo of everyone's favorite records. [R] English and Spanish, Dolby Surround; letterboxed (1.78:1) and anamorphic widescreen; dual layer.

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