Irish Idol: A DIY rock band makes some noise in John Carney’s ‘Sing Street’

Movies Features

International critical acclaim, a devoted fan-base, and a musical legacy that had legs extending to the Oscars and the stages of Broadway... For the Irish filmmaker John Carney, it all started with Once, the World Dramatic Competition Audience Award winner of the 2007 Sundance Film Festival, which later became a long-running and touring Broadway musical with eight Tony Awards to its name. Almost a decade after Once’s screen bow in the snowy mountains of Park City, Utah, and three films later—including the 2013 Keira Knightley-Mark Ruffalo musical Begin Again—the writer-director is back with Sing Street, his next potential smash hit that started its journey in Sundance in January before an exuberant audience.

“I cannot overestimate how much [my career and life] changed,” says Carney about the impact of Once. “The great thing is, it allowed me to go on making movies. Having a successful film in America is hugely important in terms of your career and building up relationships. In that sense, I owe everything to Once.”

But Carney admits Once was a very hard act to follow. Concerns that would daunt any artist with a massive hit daunted him too. “I was nervous that [Sing Street] might come across as a difficult second album or something like that,” he confides, recalling his thought process about his Sundance homecoming and its reception. “Obviously, I had made other movies in between, but I think people liked the continuity between Once and Sing Street. I think they liked the idea that the two films were connected and part of an ongoing series.”

The almost immediately disarming Sing Street, at its core, is the straightforward coming-of-age tale of a young Irish boy in the 1980s named Cosmo (the remarkable newcomer Ferdia Walsh-Peelo), who forms a band to impress a girl named Raphina (Lucy Boynton, striking and charismatic). Packed with memorable original tracks (each with its own high-concept music-video) reminiscent of the sound and style of popular bands of the era (“colorful, hedonistic bands of the ’80s,” as Carney puts it, mentioning Duran Duran as a example), and vividly flamboyant, DIY-style costumes, Sing Street is unadulterated bliss from start to finish—the kind of film that makes you swing in your seat and rhythmically nod with approval. The ensemble of young actors—found in a big open casting call around Ireland—light up the screen with gusto and a collective idiosyncratic charm.

“We let them play songs and talk about themselves and do a scene from the movie,” Carney recalls about the casting process. “We talked about who they were, their film interests, music interests, and what they were doing in school. Through that process, we put together this great collection of kids. We tried to basically cast it like you would a band. We wanted it to look right and seem plausible.”

Like many who experienced the back-to-back dark fare of this year’s Sundance, I too welcomed Sing Street with open arms and a sigh of relief. Carney says the collective exhalation in the theatre wasn’t unnoticed by him during the premiere. “I felt [Sing Street] came at a good time, in terms of people needing something a little lighter. A relief from, not just the heaviness of the festival, but actually the time we're living in and the amount of news we're absorbing,” he observes. “A film that makes you smile is a very welcome thing these days. And I think I make films that make you tap your toes.”

While the two stories don’t share an era, a mood, musical style or characters, Carney’s aforementioned point about a connecting tissue between Once and Sing Street certainly stands. For starters (while Once takes place in a heavier, more adult world), both films tell Irish stories of romantic and personal awakenings, relayed musically with a touch of melancholy. Asked whether he is a romantic at heart, as implied by the kinds of stories he’s drawn to, Carney replies, “I definitely greet each day with a spring in my step and see the potential in music. When you listen to a new song and you hear the intention of that song and the singer's voice, or the lyrics or the music, you get to vicariously think romantically again.”

In both Once and Sing Street, the delivery and timing of music is organic and refrains from interrupting or disturbing the natural flow of story, a tough balance to achieve in musical filmmaking. “I love Hollywood musicals and French musicals, but I do have a problem with the way they were [often] vehicles for songs,” Carney suggests. “The dialogue or the thought was extraneous, and hatched a little bit later. I always felt that undermined the movies themselves.” Because music has been crucial throughout his life in helping him make judgment calls at many turning points, it was only natural for him to apply his approach to music to his filmmaking style as a guiding principle. “A film should be steered by the music if you're telling a musical story. That’s the steering wheel or the mast or the sail [for] how you move your character along and develop your story,” he explains. “It doesn't have to be separate from the music. The two things can work in harmony together.”

Part of what makes Sing Street a special project for John Carney is the semi-autobiographical nature of its basic premise: A young boy meets and falls in love with a girl, and consequently forms a band. “Yes, I did that,” he says, softly laughing. “I'm sure in a sense every kid did some fictionalizing when he or she would woo somebody else. You're finding out who you are and experimenting with identity. That's very much where the autobiographical side of the movie begins and ends. The rest of the story is very much a made-up story. I never went to London in a stolen boat. But London was the place to go for Irish people to experience more of Europe and more of America. People would come back from London with amazing stories of fashion and nightclubs and drug abuse and sexuality and all that stuff. There was a great sense of anarchy and a sense of youthful expression.”

But Carney’s memories and observations of 1980s Ireland did in the end form the backdrop of the film. “It's really about the escapism of the ’80s,” he explains, noting that the ’80s in Ireland were equivalent to the ’60s in the rest of the world, with a sexual revolution taking hold and self-expression through pop music, fashion and even cinema becoming more commonplace. “Up until then, we obviously had great writers and poets and dreamers and musicians. [But] that particular brand, that statement of in-your-face, Technicolor art…that we discovered [later]. Pop art [arrived] a little bit later than the rest of the world in Ireland. Around the time I was growing up.”

He ponders whether today’s kids feel the same away about self-expression, or if they are even allowed to. “They are so controlled by corporations, clothes shops, and labels. Seems like self-expression of music and fashion isn’t there. Maybe that's the thing I look back on. Maybe that's how every generation feels.”

Carney credits the collective work of his crew for the visual and musical depiction of that self-expression. He and Tiziana Corvisieri, his costume designer who is also a good friend and a longtime collaborator, were on the same page for Sing Street: They both wanted to create costumes that were “outrageous but plausible.”“If you look at the costumes closely, you realize that a lot of the guys are often wearing a lot of women's clothing. The idea behind that was they'd stolen or borrowed clothes from their sisters or their mother or their grandmother,” Carney reveals. “We didn't have those big stores in Ireland where you could just go in and buy a new look whenever you wanted to. In the ’80s, you had to build your own look. We used that as a template: You had to rip your own jeans back then. You had to tie-dye your own clothes. You had to pierce your own ears.”

As for his collaboration with Gary Clark in creating the sound for Sing Street, Carney recognizes the seamless nature of their artistic partnership in weaving together the musical tracks and the story. “I was writing the script as we would work on music back and forth between London and Ireland. He would send me a song and sing. It was quite like me and Glen [Hansard] in Once. It wasn't a question of him writing any specific song to slot in. They were stitched into the cloth, into the narrative.” He remembers coming up with the first song we get to hear in Sing Street (titled “The Riddle of the Model,” a clear favorite of the Sundance audience) as an example. “I came up with that name based on the scene in which he sees her standing in the corner. I would halt the scriptwriting process and we would go into the studio and write ‘The Riddle of the Model.’ Now, when he's singing it to Raphina, I know what he's talking about and I can even quote the song and have him hum the song.”

“I shot a couple of videos for bands that I was in when I was young,” he adds. “Once is about live music. Begin Again is about recording music from the street. Sing Street is about making the videos that accompany the music. It was a very big deal in America with MTV. It was also a very significant thing in Ireland and England with ‘Top of the Pops,’ which was about showcasing new acts that were on the charts. They started to realize, if they don't have a band here [if the band is off on tour], why not make a short film before they go, [so they could] play that on video to represent the band? This idea was born out of necessity, which is very interesting. The process of how they're made could be very funny. They're often self-financed, very pretentious directorially, and were quite embarrassing and dated for that reason. I wanted to have fun with that.”

In a lesser coming-of-age story about a young boy, Raphina—the inspiration behind “The Riddle of the Model”—would become a disposable story device. But Carney takes pride in allowing Raphina her own journey. “The initial relationship is based on imagery and not actual conversation. He's drawn to her because of her attitude. Likewise, she likes his ambition. They're both presenting a case. She’s presenting this aloof model who looks perfect and looks amazing, but she's a girl having her own troubles and her own problems and identity issues. Likewise, he doesn't have a band. He’s a new kid in school getting beaten up and stuff. I quite liked the idea of developing it out further. She doesn't change for [Cosmo]. The character of Cosmo has to really embark on a relationship with her for real and go away with her and find out what that means. You have to go into a little more depth with characters in order to make it seem earned. I have to give credit to Lucy Boynton, who is a terrific actress. She was very careful and wise in her approach, I think.”

Sing Street comes at a fruitful time for Irish cinema, on the heels of the international success of Lenny Abrahamson’s Room and John Crowley’s Brooklyn—both recent Oscar nominees in multiple categories, including Best Picture. “It has been a great year for Irish cinema, for sure. Maybe it's just about time for Ireland, which has an amazing track record in terms of the arts. It's such a small country, but it's so productive. I remember going to America and on the plane while you’re taxiing, [you hear] U2. And then in the car to the hotel, [you hear] Van Morrison. And then in the hotel, other Irish artists that you can just hear in any club or café around the world. No country of five million people produces that concentration of artists. It almost seems as if cinema was falling behind for a while, but then you have Neil Jordan and Steve Barron. It's either a coincidence or it's happening late and it's always been happening in Ireland. I'm not sure yet. I think we have to wait and see.”

One would expect Carney to have thoughts about his next film, but it turns out, everything takes a back seat to the new, exciting chapter ahead of him. “The next big production in my life is a baby that we're having,” he says joyously. “That's what I'm going to do. I'm going to be a father. It is our first kid. We're in heaven.”