Moviemaking and songwriting are exercises with a lot in common: both trade on structure, emotion, anticipation and release. In three movies, Irish filmmaker John Carney has united the two crafts with extraordinary success.
Once (2007), about a love affair in Dublin that is consummated only through music, made its small budget back many times over and spawned a hit stage musical. Begin Again (2013) brought together a washed-up record producer (Mark Ruffalo) and a jilted singer-songwriter (Keira Knightley) to record an album on the streets of New York. Both movies yielded Oscar-nominated songs and Once’s ‘Falling Slowly’ even claimed the statuette.
Now, with the colourful comedy Sing Street, which screens in Sydney Film Festival this weekend, Carney goes back to the place where the urge to start a band and make music normally starts: high school. In 1985’s Dublin, 15-year-old Conor (newcomer Ferdia Walsh-Peelo) is transferred to the rough Synge Street Christian Brothers School, a place where the violence of the schoolyard is surpassed only by the bullying of the teacher priests.
Besotted by Raphina (Lucy Boynton), a 16-year-old aspiring model he spies across the street from the school, he decides to start a group in order to cast her in their amateur pop videos.
Conor and his songwriting partner Eamon (Mark McKenna) crib their song styles and their wardrobe from the various bands they discover on their journey towards their performance at the school’s end-of-year dance – Duran Duran, the Cure, A-ha, Hall and Oates. They’re helped by Conor’s music-loving older brother Brendan (Jack Reynor), who tutors him on such things as the appeal of John Taylor’s bass playing and the girl repellent that is the music of Genesis (“no woman can ever truly love a man who listens to Phil Collins,” he cautions).
"We never really had a ’60s in Ireland – the ’80s were our ’60s"
Carney, on the phone to Time Out from the Irish capital, says he’s been waiting for the right moment to tell this story, which is deeply rooted in his own childhood. (Carney himself attended the Synge Street school, where he started a band with the aspirational name La Vie – one of the monikers considered and dismissed by the band members in the film.)
“It really is a question of timing,” he says. “You have to wait till people are ready for the nostalgia of a story about the ’80s. That generation of 40 year olds are not running in horror now from that decade, the way we were in the ’90s... it was really the last era of truly great, flamboyant, fun bands, you know?”
The filmmaker, who for a while played bass in the Frames with future Once star Glen Hansard, recalls the Dublin of his childhood as an “eternally grey” place. “There was a recession. People were broke. So Top of the Pops and music were a real escape – like a world in Technicolor. It was actually a very liberating time, sexually as well. We never really had a ’60s in Ireland – the ’80s were our ’60s.”
For advice in the early stages of the script Carney at first consulted U2’s Bono and the Edge (“if you’re going to make a film about a good Irish band forming in school, you need to sort of knock on their door”). Scheduling difficulties curtailed that collaboration, so for the actual songwriting he turned to Gary Clark of 1980s band Danny Wilson (‘Mary’s Prayer’), with poptastic results. Sing Street’s exultant songs include the Hall and Oates-style ‘Drive It Like You Stole It’ and the Cure-esque ‘A Beautiful Sea’.
"'Take on Me' is not just a cute '80s song – it's a very good, very clever song musically and melodically"
“It was good fun just trying to write the best songs we could and not worry too much about the ’80s thing,” Carney says. “Because it’s very easy to sound like the ’80s. The good songs you remember from the ’80s are just very good songs – you’ve forgotten the bad songs.”
So when A-ha’s ‘Take on Me’ pops up repeatedly in the film, we can take that as a recommendation? “Yeah – that’s not just a cute ’80s song, it’s a very good, very clever song musically speaking, melodically speaking.”
To find the youthful band members Carney held an open casting call, which yielded a major find in 14-year-old Walsh-Peelo. “He just had all this swagger and confidence that was hilarious to watch – an almost Ferris Bueller-like quality which is magnetic on screen.”
The more experienced Boynton, meanwhile, has the big hair, cheekbones and pout of Kim Wilde, and a beguiling mix of streetwisdom and innocence: “I guarantee she’s going to be a big star. She doesn’t have any of that movie star baggage – that Keira Knightley baggage.”
Shortly after speaking to Time Out, Carney will get into hot water for his comments about Knightley, complaining to The Independent that “Keira has an entourage that follow her everywhere so it’s very hard to get any real work done” and that he’d “never work with supermodels again.” He subsequently apologised over Twitter.
Anxieties about authenticity lurk below the surface of Carney's feel-good instincts but Sing Street is, ultimately, a joyful coming-of-age film about the power of music to fuel one’s escape from the things that bring us down. Carney believes the film might enjoy a second life on stage as well, just like Once – even though he’s likely to stay in the background for that.
“I was involved in the early planning stage of Once [the musical] and since then I gratefully have been able to go on and make my own films and not worry too much about it. Because it turns out that it’s just a story that weirdly can be acted by anybody, all around the world. It has a sort of a universal enough appeal that it can take care of itself.”
Sing Street screens in the Sydney Film Festival, Jun 18-19, with special guests Ferdia Walsh-Peelo and Mark McKenna and a special Sing Street ’80s School Disco on Sat Jun 18. The film opens in cinemas on Jul 14.