The Swell Season
dir. Nick August-Perna, et al. | USA | 2011 | 91 mins.
After rising to relative prominence in 2007, and following their appearance in the 2006 naturalistic drama-musical Once, the folk-rock duo The Swell Season—Irish musician Glen Hansard and Czech singer and pianist Markéta Irglová—somehow dropped off my radar. I had enjoyed John Carney’s film (based around Hansard’s busker anecdotes), seeing it soon after its release, and I even bought the accompanying Grammy-nominated soundtrack, which contained “Falling Slowly,” the winner of Best Original Song at the 2007 Oscars. Then, for reasons unknown, I lost interest, my ears pricking-up only briefly when I heard they were coming to play in Auckland’s Aotea Centre back in 2010. In spite of my waned interest in their career over the past few years, I took a look at a new documentary about the band.
A team of dedicated film-makers—Nick August-Perna, Chris Dapkins, and Carlo Mirabella-Davis—followed the duo for three years from 2007; the resulting documentary, The Swell Season, is an intimate, monochromatic glimpse at the people behind the music, their lives before and after their rise to fame, and the toll that it has taken on them.
The film opens with Hansard in concert, addressing an audience:
You kick your ball, and uh, it goes over the back wall, and then over the river, and then over the next town, and into a place you never imagined it would ever end up… and four-fifths of you is going “Oh my god! I can’t believe I kicked my ball that far, it’s amazing!” and I guess those four-fifths totally outweigh the one little fifth of you that’s going “I want my fucking ball back.”
He’s introducing his next song, but the metaphor can also be applied to describe the band’s swift rise to public attention, something which leaves a bittersweet taste in the viewer’s mouth. In what is a rather poignant moment, Hansard’s proud working-class mother—who borrowed three thousand pounds from the bank to help fund the album—expresses her desire that Glen were in the newspaper everyday so as not to fade from the public eye. He and Markéta feel quite the opposite, clearly very grateful for the attention they receive from fans, but ill-at-ease with being labelled as “celebrities” and photographed accordingly.
Hansard and Irglová, who were together for a few years, separating in 2009, are presented very personable—Hansard often joking around with his bandmates; Irglová cutting his hair and sweeping the strands up off the floor, and the pair running into the sea at a public beach, nude and laughing. With the film spanning three years, tumultuous milestones such as the couple’s break-up are dealt with elegantly: Glen explains that one day you’re singing songs about breaking up and thinking it’ll never happen to you, the next they’re playing out exactly as you’d written them. Markéta also comes in to her own—she was just seventeen when she and Glen, who is eighteen years her senior, got together—saying instead of adopting all of Hansard’s ideas like she used to, she began to form her own opinions.
Perhaps the lasting message of the film comes in Hansard’s alcoholic father’s dying words. Glen explains that one night he asked his father if there was ever going to be a revelation from him, something heavy that he was going to sit his family down and tell them before he finally went:
…and he said “Son… I’m going to stay drunk until I die. There’ll be no big sit down, no big talk, I love ya’s all, but there’s things inside me I don’t want any of you to ever know anything about.
The Swell Season successfully and eloquently manages to unravel a cliché, proving that even indie-folk bands can’t avoid the downsides of fame—but it does so without the obvious screaming matches and overblown trivial dramas seen so often in MTV and E! “behind-the-music”-type documentaries. There may be things here an audience doesn’t need to see, but that doesn’t make the film any less affecting.
The 2012 World Cinema Showcase runs from March 29–April 11 in Auckland; April 5–22 in Wellington; April 19–May 2 in Dunedin, and April 26–May 9 in Wellington.
For more coverage, browse the “World Cinema Showcase 2012” tag on this site, and for information on tickets and session times, visit the World Cinema Showcase website. You can also follow me, @insequential, and the @wcshowcase on Twitter (hashtag #wcs).