John Carney‘s Once was a perfect creation — an Irish busker musical about falling in love while building a band, and which ended with the main character heading off to London in search of the big time. I bought every line, every frame, every song…it felt honest and true and straight from the heart. Carney’s next was Begin Again (originally titled Can A Song Save Your Life?), a kind of fantasy redemption tale about a New York manager (Mark Ruffalo) falling platonically in love with a fledgling singer (Keira Knightley) as they assemble a ragtag street band. I enjoyed the spirit and pluck, but the film still felt a wee bit labored and contrived.
Carney’s Sing Street (Weinstein, 4.15) is better than Begin Again but not as good as Once, although it nearly gets there at times. It’s a Dublin-set, mid-’80s love story that follows what now feels like the Carney formula — falling in love, building a band, leaving for London at the finale. It’s well crafted and authentic as far as it goes, but it’s still another Carney-musical-with-guitars in which everyone who steps up to a mike plays perfectly and even the rehearsal versions of songs are perfectly mixed.
This isn’t a bad thing, per se, but at the same time you can’t quite believe it. Well, you can if you want to (two or three critics at yesterday afternoon’s screening were chortling all through it) but not 100%.
I had a perfectly fine time with Sing Street, but you can sense Carney trying like hell to please whereas Once, which was selling a similar combination of charm, heart and great tunes, seemed to primarily be about its own sincerity and passion; it almost felt as if reaching the audience was an afterthought on Carney’s part. It wasn’t, of course, but Carney half-convinced me otherwise.
It must also be said that Sing Street isn’t nearly as raunchy and kicky as Alan Parker‘s The Commitments (’91), which was about the travails of an Irish blues-and-soul band. The Commitments was naturally aiming to entertain, but, like Once, it seemed to first and foremost be about planting its feet and giving straight from the gut. You couldn’t sense the tugging of marionette strings as clearly in The Commitments as you can in Sing Street.
Sing Street is actually a dual love story. One, a romantic pairing between Conor Lalor, a 15 year-old singer-songwriter (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo) who looks like a combination of Pete Doherty and a very young Paul McCartney, and Raphina, a slightly older, would-be model (Lucy Boynton). And two, a bittersweet love story between Conor and his older brother Brendan (Jack Reynor) whose wisdom about life and women is belied by the fact that he’s dropped out of college and is eating shitty food (he’s a whale) and basically floundering around.
What happens besides the band-forming and brother-bonding and the Conor-Raphina relationship? Not a whole lot. Conor takes a lot of shit from the brutes at school for looking and dressing effeminate — that’s one thing — plus the headmaster is an asshole in his own regard plus Conor and Brendan are coping with upheavals caused by his parents’ financial difficulties (which results in his being pulled out of a private school) and impending divorce. But that’s pretty much it.
The fact that Conor and Raphina never “do it”, by the way, is yet another aspect of the Carney formula — a notion that moist, panting sex will only interfere with the dream state that comes from making good music.
The performances are planted and believable as far as they go. Walsh-Peelo, Boynton and Reynor share the main burden; the stand-out supporters include Aidan Gillen, Ben Carolan, Maria Doyle Kennedy and Kelly Thornton.
I played drums in a couple of bands in my early 20s, and one thing I learned is that writing good songs and making them sound the way they should with just the right combination of harmonies, instruments and mixing is really hard. The percentage of rock bands that wind up being good enough is about the same as movies or plays or writers who wind up making it — i.e., less than 10%, if that. Making a song sound exactly right takes a lot of practice and some tough decisions on the part of the songwriters or lead musicians. I once heard David O. Russell tell a story about listening through the walls to a very young Jackson Browne, who was living in a Manhattan apartment next to one being rented by Russell’s friend, rehearsing and re-writing “Doctor My Eyes” so many times that Russell was getting sick of it. Don’t kid yourself — success is for the few.
I get that being in a mid ’80s band meant that you had to feign a certain glammy appearance (makeup, hair tint, high-style clothing) but there’s no way I’d dress that way if I’d just enrolled in a tough public school. Why invite grief? I would only glam up for band gigs.
And if you’ve been lucky enough to hook up with some musicians who are good enough to make you sound really good and vice versa, would you decide to just suddenly blow them off so you can move to London with your girlfriend? Wouldn’t it make more sense for the band members to move to London en masse and share a place? The film ends with a closing title — “For brothers everywhere”. How brotherly is it to blow off your band bros for a girl who might drop you when her mood changes? You can never trust would-be models.
And if you and your girlfriend are making your way across the Irish sea in a small motorboat, wouldn’t she want to take shelter inside the boat’s small indoor cabin when it starts to rain?
Ferdia is pronounced like Fergie — here’s some audio assistance.