Overall, I must say that I
was struck by the similarity of The Swell Season to Hobo with
Well, wait, hold on a sec and
I'll explain: both films know what their target audiences expect
as they enter the theater, and then do their best to make sure that
they leave with their needs met. It's that simple.
And in this case, the "best"
of writing-directing team Nick August-Perna, Chris Dapkins, and Carlo
Mirabella-Davis is very good indeed.
After all, what's the most
you could hope for in a doc that chronicles the artistic collaboration,
public romance, and slow-dissolve breakup of Oscar-winners Glen Hansard
and Markéta Irglová? Would it be a bracingly personal, smart, and
bittersweet (but not cloying) film with impassioned musical performances
thrown in every few minutes? If so, get thee to Tribeca, because your
hopes have just become reality.
With its standard formula of
front-seat vantage point and backstage access, the pop music doc is
arguably the most enduring and popular brand of documentary, especially
for those audiences that don't normally flock to the genre. So since
there would seem to be little new territory to explore here, and since
the bar is not always set too high--the fanbase for any particular
artist can go home happy as long as there's solid on-stage footage--filmmakers
who wish to distinguish themselves in this context would appear to be
facing quite a challenge.
But just as Once seemed
to invent its own grownup language to reinvigorate the movie musical,
The Swell Season shakes up the pop music doc in a way that suggests
new possibilities for the form. Its beautiful black-and-white cinematography
(the shots of Ireland are often breathtaking) and terrific editing go
a long way toward explaining why The Swell Season works, but
one can't help but suspect that it's the off-camera relationships
that were the special ingredient. And "relationships" in this case
doesn't refer to those between Hansard, Irglová, and their bandmates,
but rather between the entire group of musicians and the filmmakers
themselves. Over time a deep sense of trust apparently developed so
that subjects became less guarded, and the ensuing spirit of direct
and disarming honesty is compounded by the innately down-to-earth personalities
of the performers.
At first the candid interludes
that are captured as a result can come across as something other than
the product of trust--maybe naïveté or even exploitation, or a combination
of the two. For example, an early scene of Hansard and Irglová skinny-dipping
seems too awkwardly intimate: we're not sure why the filmmakers, and
thus ourselves, are privileged with this (literally revealing) glimpse
into the private lives of others. It seems that The Swell Season
hasn't yet earned this moment.
However, as the film progresses
it earns it again and again. The portrait we get of Hansard's family
in particular is unforgettable--his Mom effusive about her son receiving
an Oscar from no less a figure than John Travolta while his Dad determinedly
drinks himself into the grave. Interesting, we see Irglová's acceptance
speech only via a small TV screen, and it's her upbeat--to many,
inspiring--words that echo dimly, sadly, and ironically throughout
the rest of the film. Sure, we can have anything we want... but at what
That The Swell
Season manages to avoid falling into an abyss of showbiz clichés--fame
ain't what it's cracked up to be, doncha know?--is a testament
to how it keeps its focus on the specific flesh-and-blood people involved
rather than treating them like generic celebrities. In this way, Irglová's
growing unease with notoriety doesn't serve to set up some whiny message
about being true to oneself, but rather illustrates the potential long-term
cost of differing expectations about life that can beset any
And it's that sense of universality despite the aura of celebrity that makes The Swell Season so quietly powerful. These days, when so many indie films believe that the only pathway to things dark is through things heavy, and when Reality TV bombards us with countless shrill couples fighting over non-issues, it's almost a radical act to depict a genuine breakup in all its subtlety. You can see things from both the principals' points of view, as a mutual friend might, and this only adds to the melancholic wisdom conveyed by the film. As someone like Cole Porter might have written, it was certainly a swell time--but all seasons eventually pass.
[Photo Credit: Chris Dapkins]