The Swell Season

Reviewer: James van Maanen
Ratings (out of five): ** 1/2

Among its other accomplishments, the new documentary The Swell Season manages very clearly to differentiate fan bases: that of the fans of the 2006 movie Once (which starred the subjects of this new film: Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová), or the fans of the performers themselves. Fans of the former -- such as myself, who found Once a tiny, no-budget marvel with a lovely story, some wonderful songs and a bittersweet ending about as close to perfection as movies get -- can only feel supremely indebted to John Carney, the writer/director of Once, who, probably more than anyone, brought this film to fruition with his sense of pacing, subtlety and story-telling skills.

Of course, there will be a certain amount of crossover: fans of the film who are also fans of its stars. But what the trio of filmmakers responsible for The Swell Season have given us -- that's Nick August-Perna, who recorded the sound; Chris Dapkins, who operated the camera; and Carlo Mirabella-Davis, who held the LED light, intentionally or not, is a documentary designed to appeal mostly to fans of its two, almost-by-accident stars. If you are among these fans, I can't imagine you won't hang on every mumbled word and tiny action displayed by the pair -- first, via TV as they win their Oscar; talk about their early, budding romance and how it came to be; introduce us to his parents (dad's an ex-teenage boxing champ who's now a drunk, while mom is perhaps a tad too focused on that Oscar), take the tour from hell (yes, but aren't they all?) and interact over and over again with that fan base, trying to remain "real" and "in the moment." It ain't easy.

Filmed in fun-to-watch black-and-white, The Swell Season asks -- over and over -- the same question, without ever doing it in this exacting a manner: How do you stay "current" and in front of people's faces, once that initial, ground-breaking success has finished? Glen's mom, in fact, brings this up -- which Glen pooh-poohs and doesn't want to hear. Yet these two performers decided to take their success on tour with their band, after which the film is named, and then document their career and personal lives via this film. That's a pretty smart way to keep yourself in the mix, no?

Maybe, maybe not. As the film moves along, we're privy to the toll this is taking, particularly on Markéta (more obviously, at least; she's able to give vent to it). Glen, it becomes clear, has some major problems to work out concerning his life, his parents, his history and what he wants, and he grows angrier and more sullen. And while the movie lets us in on this, with the camera going and the twosome performing, onstage and off, it's not always so clear if there is ever a time when they are not performing. This is a problem built into fly-on-the-wall documentaries, but it is a particularly obvious one here. We feel we're getting a shaded version of reality, with much of the "real" reality held in check.

The movie's success comes down to how interested the viewer finally is in these two people. For me, the interest was marginal. Nothing we see here seems much different from what most bands must contend with -- maybe just a bit lighter and less intense, given the twosome's particular persona of the "successful innocents." The film ends with their appearance at NYC's Radio City Music Hall. As Glen ended what sounded to me like only a so-so number, I found myself thinking, "Whew -- is he in a little bit over his head?" But then there is suddenly a round of thunderous applause. Go figure.

The Swell Season, which more than anything else made me want to re-visit Once, is now on DVD with extras that include over 45 minutes of live performances by The Swell Season band. 

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