The struggle to sustain success and stability after years of striving for it proves the focus of The Swell Season, Nick August-Perna, Chris Dapkins, and Carlo Mirabella-Davis’s documentary about the two-year concert tour embarked on by Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová, a.k.a. the Swell Season, in the wake of their Best Song Oscar for Once. Embossed in silken black and white, the film is, at heart, a snapshot of “what happens next” for the twosome, who come to this newfound fame and popularity via very different paths, with the fortysomething Glen having toiled as a musician since ditching school at 14, and the twentysomething Markéta having found stardom almost immediately upon teaming with Glen.
The filmmakers, however, dispense with all but fleeting context, a strange approach that—as with mentions of Glen’s prior band the Frames, or Markéta’s young age—wrongly assumes its audience’s familiarity with the duo’s Wikipedia bios, if not the intimate details of their professional and personal lives. Such sketchiness proves frustrating, particularly in the case of how Glen, apparently a longtime friend of Markéta’s Czech family, came to partner with her musically, and unfortunately remains endemic once they begin trekking from venue to venue, offering snippets of tour shenanigans (iPod dance parties aboard the bus, backstage joking and drinking) and confessional interviews with Glen and Markéta, as well as Glen’s effusive parents.
Such superficiality is a shame, given that the material often feels ripe for further exploration, as with Markéta’s gradual development of an identity separate from Glen, or the pair’s creative process, which is captured during riveting in-the-studio peeks at solitary and collaborative songwriting. Like much of the footage, these glimpses are fleeting and rarely expanded on, so that their vitality dissipates almost as soon as the next scene begins. As Glen and Markéta slowly grow apart, the directors smoothly cut to live performance clips that speak to the couple’s emotional tensions, and nicely bookend their film with shots of Markéta skinny-dipping with Glen and lying alone in the ocean’s surf. Yet they otherwise spend so much time depicting life-on-the-road humdrumness that their overarching portrait of Glen and Markéta’s dissolution—wrought from divergent temperaments and career attitudes—feels malnourished.
Be it a stressed café conversation in which Markéta astutely pinpoints the irrationality of Glen’s continued need for a “struggle” (here, against the very success he coveted), or Glen’s drunken father expressing pride over having abandoned his boxing aspirations in order to afford his children opportunities to chase their own dreams, the film presents a disparate series of affecting moments. Ultimately, though, they never cohere into something more than a moderately engaging for-fans-only tour diary.