Cleveland scores sneak peek of amazing documentary
When I heard that a documentary about The Swell Season would be playing at the Capitol Theatre from Fri 9/9 – Thu 9/15, I dropped everything to find tickets. What I found upon doing a little research was interesting to say the least. At first I was a bit confused. Cleveland was not on the list of screenings, which didn’t start until mid October. According to the Cleveland Cinema website, the documentary, which had its premiere at prestigious film festivals, would be playing right here in Cleveland as a “sneak peek preview” weeks before it would open in Los Angeles or New York City. I was instantly proud to see the independent film culture of Cleveland receiving recognition through this special preview screening.
How did Cleveland get so lucky? This “sneak peek preview” of The Swell Season represents a partnership between Cleveland Cinemas and 7th Art Releasing, the film’s distributor. “We felt that Cleveland was a great place for a Sneak Peek Preview of The Swell Season,” says Rachel Owen, director of PR and social media for 7th Art Releasing. “The band has a strong following there.” Dave Huffman, director of marketing for Cleveland Cinemas, is a fan of the band and notes their Cleveland following as well. “Once was very popular at the Cedar Lee in 2007, and we know that a lot of people in Cleveland are interested in them and their music,” he says. Huffman himself is a fan — he was at the same concert I attended. “It worked out perfectly that we had this week to show the film and the distributor was willing to offer Cleveland this sneak peek.”
If the name The Swell Season doesn’t ring a bell, you might know a little independent film that won an Oscar for best song in 2007 (for “Falling Slowly”), Once. The Swell Season is the band formed by Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová, the stars of Once, before and during the film. The seasoned Irish busker turned lead singer of rock band The Frames and the youthful Czech ingénue had a palpable connection in Once that took the movie from an indie romance with a great soundtrack to a genuine musical odyssey filled with an innocent beauty absent from most Hollywood productions. Rising to fame with Once, the duo blossomed, leading to more writing, a worldwide concert tour and a much-talked-about off-screen romance.
When I saw Glen and Markéta on stage in Cleveland a year later at Playhouse Square, I stood in a roaring, sold-out crowd, watching a performance that was as intimate as it was powerful. Again, the chemistry and obvious tenderness between the two singers blended with their harmonies to create a musical experience that was more than just listening to songs sung well (though for the record, the singing was and is incredible from these artists, maybe the best I’ve ever heard live). In many moments, the concert was more like watching a private conversation between lovers; sometimes joyous, sometimes inspired and sometimes heartbroken.
The Swell Season is a window into the relationship between these two very real people, who sometimes seem to inhabit their fan’s minds as a blend of reality and fantasy. The two brought so much of themselves to their Once roles that even I find it hard to separate the real couple from the imaginary couple at times. Watching The Swell Season, I felt as if I could have easily been watching a sequel to Once, where the two characters reunited and began another musical journey together.
The beauty of this film, however, is that we finally get a picture of the real personalities and frailties of these two brilliant musicians. It is rare to see a documentary where the filmmakers truly blend seamlessly into the background and can capture raw, unscripted, intimate moments without altering the emotions and outcomes in the process, but here something incredible has happened. With the compelling storyline of a fictitious drama, and the grittiness of a genuine happening, an unbelievably real tale with graceful direction emerges.
Sitting in the beautifully renovated Capitol Theatre in the dark, watching a crisp, clean digital projection, the artful cinematography in The Swell Season was gripping. Shot between bumpy roads and raucous backstage celebrations, the film has the feeling of a rugged handheld style, which is interspersed with beautifully still and artfully framed interviews and moments from the concert stage. Rack focus is used heavily throughout the film, revealing only part of a scene, then shifting to reveal another, often holding the audience in a state of rapt anticipation, denying us visual access to the meat of the scene for just a moment before allowing us to peer in. This shifting focus creates a sense of unrest and frustration for the audience at times, matching the mood of genuine uncertainty and capturing the characters’ reactions to instant fame, along with the intricacies and neuroses of a romance on the road.
The film is also a music documentary, showing the genesis, composition and performance of The Swell Season’s tender, heartfelt and often melancholy songs. The high quality of the sound showcases the music, but it’s the spanning views of the audience from the stage and intimate backstage access that allows the audience to feel the pressure and elation of newfound fame and adoration.
The most compelling scenes showed Glen’s mother cooing over his Oscar, his father drinking away some forbidden memory he would eventually take to the grave, and Glen’s own aversion to fame, or perhaps to the type of fame he achieved. It’s hard to imagine that this brilliant lifelong musician has not won a Grammy Award, and not hard to imagine that an Oscar might not be the type of recognition he’d hoped for. The filmmaker is able to capture Markéta and Glen stealing intimate moments while the swirling buzz of life on tour engulfs them, and these small vignettes are the ones that stick in your memory long after the final scene has faded.
Without giving away too much, this film made my heart swell, took my breath away, and most of all, reminded me of those moments in my youthful relationships where the panic set in, and the peculiarities of our fragile egos no longer blended in the necessary harmony. It is the definition of a “must see,” especially with its limited release and the small window of availability. I recommend watching Once first, because the context of the first film is so important to experiencing the second.
You only have a few more days to get to the Capitol to see The Swell Season. What are you waiting for? What a wonderful opportunity for Cleveland to get a “sneak peek preview” into a film that will undoubtedly win awards, but more importantly, will win the hearts of audiences. It’s rare to get the opportunity to be a fly on such an interesting wall, or to see something real when it comes to the inner workings of relationships. It’s not a fairytale ending, yet it is a fairytale — a real fairytale, overflowing with magic, laughter and, like the original Grimm Brothers, brutal reality.
All that’s left to say is GO SEE THIS FILM. Really, I can’t do it justice with words. Borrow a copy of Once from your local library, watch it, revel in it, and then buy your ticket for The Swell Season. Both matinee and evening performances will run at the Capitol Theatre through Thu 9/15. If you need a date, call me. I will undoubtedly see it again before it’s gone.
The Swell Season shows at Cleveland Cinema’s Capitol Theatre at 1390 W. 65th Street, Cleveland, OH through Thu 9/15. The theatre will also be screening 3D Sex & Zen: Extreme Ecstasy, a film with a whole lot of buzz around the world, starting Fri 9/23. For more information, call (440) 349-3306.