The Swell Season is the spoiled result of too many cooks. Three directors helmed this episodic and ultimately aimless documentary about the titular folk-rock band formed by Once stars and Oscar winners Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová. The two became a couple despite their 18-year age difference (Irglová is now 23) and this doc, filmed somewhat distractingly in black and white, ostensibly records the end of their romance. But it’s also a film about the rigors of touring, punctuated by lengthy footage of performances.
The most sympathetic character, in fact, is neither the Irish Hansard nor the Czech Irglová but Hansard’s father, a former boxing champ and repressed alcoholic who flat-out told his children, “I’m going to stay drunk until I go.” It’s heartbreaking to hear, particularly because Hansard relates the sentiment after his father’s passing and after we see him on screen, full of personality and pride for his son. Hansard’s mother is also a frequent presence, bursting with joy over his Oscar win (for Once’s hit song, “Falling Slowly”) and way too concerned about the neighbors’ approval. She comes off as a bit loony, but it’s still uncomfortable when Hansard tries to harsh her buzz by insisting that fame means nothing.
This isn’t a film about Hansard’s parents, which is part of the problem. We’re supposed to fall in love with the couple falling out of it, yet the doc is just too piece-y for it to work; their breakup isn’t even made plain until Hansard makes a passing remark in the final chapter. In the meantime, we get tidbits. There are stories about how Hansard devoted himself to music at a young age, scenes of the pair skinny-dipping and working on songs, and a random remark from a stage tech that “one day runs into another.” Much is made of Irglová’s discomfort with hard touring, particularly the fans who want photos with her. During the lengthiest scene addressing the matter, Hansard walks out, saying he’s tired of having the same conversation. By the end of the film, you will be, too.
And their romance? You see them occasionally being affectionate, and you hear Irglová briefly tell of how they became involved. (They met and started informally playing music together when she was just 13.) There are plenty of declarations of how easy it is for the pair to write songs together, but you don’t get a sense that they were destined for each other—he’s kind of a prick, while she’s a sorta-likable, daintily voiced wallflower. Too much of The Swell Season, though, focuses on the music itself, which ranges from sleepy-angsty to sleepy-angry. If you like it, great, but that still doesn’t lend the doc a direction. It remains steadfastly folky while you wait for it to go electric.