Colorful Escapism: John Carney on the Fluid Musical Identity of Sing Street

Within the catchy melodies and sing-along-friendly lyrics that comprise the tunes in John Carney’s movie musicals is a profound message.

That is: The song that plays on the radio all day long, written by someone you’ll probably never meet, can become an integral part of your life. And when you detach that song from its original creator and turn it into something personal, it can become a leaf in the tree of your personality.

Leaving behind some of the melancholy of the Oscar-winning Once and ditching the glamour of New York-set Begin Again to return to a somewhat autobiographical Ireland, Carney’s Sing Street is an enchanting dramedy about growing up in the ’80s. The film explores the experience of being molded by the bands of the timetheir impassioned music, extravagant personas and, by today’s standards, cheesy music video visuals.

Influenced by his brother’s shattered dreams of becoming a rock star, Conor (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo) assembles a band from the ground up, initially with the sole purpose of impressing local bombshell Raphina (Lucy Boynton). Unsure of what type of music they should play, certain only that their songs must be original creations, the Sing Street gang constantly evolves in style, depending on what Conor—christened “Cosmo” by the ironic Raphina—is currently into.

Carney embraces his Irish identity—and his own musical memories of Dublin in the ’80s—to present an irresistibly charming, song-filled crowdpleaser about taking a chance. We sat down with the writer-director to discuss the latest track in his cinematic album.

Carlos Aguilar, MovieMaker Magazine (MM): With Once, Begin Again, and now Sing Street, you’ve delved into different aspects of the musical realm. What do you feel the themes explored in Sing Street add to this collection of films?

John Carney (JC): I did want to do a third movie about music. I see this movie as a part of a triptych. It’s almost like a prequel to Once, in a way, but this is me thinking about it after the fact.  In order to find out about a musician, you have to look back at how they began being a musician, how they got into music. Why do some kids get hooked into music not just as consumers, but also as producers? I like the idea that, in this case, it’s really just on the basis of a lie that this kid begins what could potentially be a whole musical career. I think musicians aren’t born. They occur by chance.

SING STREET

Jack Reynor and Ferdia Walsh-Peelo play brothers in Sing Street. Courtesy of The Weinstein Company

MM: Well, in the film the protagonist’s brother serves as a big influence.

JC: A lot of people have older brothers and sisters that played them music, and they don’t become songwriters or performers. This kid is unique in that sense.

MM: In terms of the creative process, how crucial is it for you to take part in the songwriting process besides directing the film?

JC: It’s nice to have some control over the songs. I’m sort of a hobbyist songwriter. I don’t really take myself very seriously as a songwriter, but it was nice to be involved a little bit in that in the film. Gary Clark [frontman of Scottish band Danny Wilson, whom Carney partnered with on Sing Street] is mainly responsible for all the great songs in the film. I’m almost like a secondary character in that relationship, but it was nice to feel responsible in some sense for the songs and to feel involved in that process.

MM: As with your other musical movies, the songs drive the narrative in Sing Street. Why do you find this storytelling device particularly useful in the stories you want to tell?  

JC: I like films in which the music plays a pivotal role—films where the music can move a character forward, or the drama forward, without dialogue or anything happening, but you get the sense in the song that the characters are growing up, moving forward or developing. I think that each song in this film suggests movement in the characters and development in their growth, and I think that’s good. I like that.

MM: Was your youth influenced by music videos and their aesthetics, especially from the ’80s? That visual grammar is very present in Sing Street.

JC: Yes! I liked videos in the ’80s. I wasn’t obsessed with them but I did waste a lot of my time watching them, that’s for sure. Videos for me were like escapism. They were little three or four-minute journeys to a different continent or country, a different sexual orientation, or a different fashion look. It was like colorful escapism. I think music videos in the ’80s were like musicals in the ’60s, where people went to go see something colorful: an escapist colorful world that you were in for an hour and a half.

MM: Music and individual identity go hand in hand in the movie, as the kids are open to changing outfits and sounds in a fluid manner. They are not bound to one genre, and that like an open discovery of they are and who they want to be.

JC: Yes, I definitely that’s true. Those images are really about kids finding out who they are and finding their musical identity. I like the idea that music videos gave children and young people the freedom to explore different identities within music, different tastes and different influences in music without having to necessary stick to any one tribe. I never like the idea of, “I’m a rocker,” or, “I’m this, and I have to stick to this gang because I’m part of it.” I like the idea that you could be embarrassed by who you were the day before, and that you are always changing your mind. I think it’s very good to have the freedom to change your mind, particularly when you are young, and not be embarrassed by changing your mind. Belonging to any one tribe just because you said you were part of it to begin with—I think that’s dangerous.

MM: Tell me about casting this group of talented kids. How much of a role did their musical abilities in your decision to bring them on board?

JC I cast the film very carefully. I knew the kids before we even started shooting. I knew who they were. It wasn’t like I was struggling with a bunch of kids that somebody else had cast. All the kids in the film can play music, arrange music, sing, play an instrument or write. That was one of the requirements from the casting. They needed to be able to play music in some shape or form.

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Walsh-Peelo and Mark McKenna as bandmates in Sing Street. Courtesy of The Weinstein Company

MM: Once on set, what is your directing approach to enable them to become the characters that you have written?

JC: I like to create an atmosphere where nobody feels scared or nervous. They’ve been cast in the first place because of their personalities. There was a reason behind that casting—”You don’t have to be nervous about who you are.” I try to stay in that atmosphere, and there wasn’t that big of a difference when [we started filming]; they didn’t just transform into something else. That was good for this film because it gave the kids freedom to be themselves, to be confident, to be able to tell jokes on camera, to be funny and to find their voice.

MM: Your films in often capture a certain Irish identity in terms of the country’s relationship to England and its own cultural, economical and religious struggles. Would you say that these stories are shaped by the fact that they take place within an Irish context?

JC: Ireland is a very small island and we are defined by that in lots of ways. We are defined by the fact that we are surrounded by water and our influences are from Europe, England and some from America. I think these things are important to keep in mind when you are telling stories. We are a nation that consumes an awful lot, but do end up producing quite a lot. If you look at the bands, the writers or the poets that come from Ireland, it is quite amazing in comparison to other countries of a similar size. We have an incredibly rich quality of performing artists. I think that has been a through-line in Once and particularly Sing Street, and I felt that very much as a kid myself. We are an independent island but are still very connected to England in lots of ways that sometimes we don’t like to admit.

MM: There is a dream sequence that breaks away from the rest the narrative and exemplifies the Irish perspective on this idealized idea of the “teenager” popularized by American movies in the ’80s.  Did this sequence come from a personal place?

JC: In Ireland in the ’80s everybody wore a school uniform and most schools were either all-boys or all-girlsthere weren’t mixed schools. When I would watch American films I just couldn’t believe the idea of kids wearing leather jackets, seeing girls, going to the prom, playing sports together and all those thing that were such a part of American high-school life. It was so alien to me in Ireland, where everything was so drab, gray and depressing. I really loved those kinds of movies. I loved American films about school, particularly high school. I remember as a kid I loved Grease, Back to the Future and also The Nutty Professor, which was from the ’60s. There were just such different stories from the ones that we see in Ireland.

MM: Sing Street recalls The Commitments, another popular Irish film about aspiring musicians in Dublin. Was that also a reference for you?

JC: There is no film that I reference particularly in Sing Street. I think it’s quite original. I like School of Rock a lot. It’s a terrific film. But I wasn’t thinking in particular about The Commitments. I think anything that tells the story of a band in Dublin is going to be compared to The Commitments because that film casts a very long shadow, so I know the comparisons are going to be there and I’m flattered by any comparison to that film.

MM: Is there still another aspect of the musical industry or craft that you would like to tackle in an upcoming film, or is Sing Street capping off this series?

JC: There are lots of parts of the music industry that I’d like to tell stories about later on. I spent a lot of time in and around the music industry in my life. I haven’t figured out which story I want to tell next. But I think I probably will continue this series of musical films that I’ve been making so far. MM

Sing Street opens in theaters April 15, 2016, courtesy of The Weinstein Company.

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