OHN Carney’s latest film, Sing Street, is informed by a period of intense unhappiness in the director’s own life. In his teens, he transferred from a well-to-do fee-paying school in south Dublin to a rough-at-the-edges CBS in the inner city. He was teased and bullied — every day reminded he didn’t belong.
So you might expect Sing Street to be a bit of a downer, a bit Ken Loach meets Roddy Doyle. Actually, it’s the exact opposite. Carney’s fifth feature as director is a deeply joyful musical comedy that reads as a valentine to the optimism and boundless energy of youth. Even a scuffed, rough-at-the-edges childhood deserved to be celebrated, the director believes.
“Growing up in the 1980s, we had a sense that the recession was happening,” says the 43-year-old, best known for his 2008 hit Once. “At the same time we had a colourful outlook. Youth is very optimistic. On the one hand, Ireland was grey and dreary. But this was our youth. We loved it because we were kids.”
After Once and the glossier Begin Again (starring Keira Knightley and Mark Ruffalo), Sing Street is the third Carney movie inspired by his experiences as a musician (he briefly played bass in Dublin institution The Frames). Hero Cosmo (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo) is a posh kid forced to enrol at a Dublin northside school when the family finances go south (the dysfunctional parents are played with relish by Aidan Gillen and Maria Doyle Kennedy).
The school is based on Synge Street CBS, at which Carney was a student and which he portrays as essentially a warzone presided over by Christian Brothers (Carney has acknowledged that it bears no resemblance to the progressive, modern-day Synge Street). When not fleeing bullies or a sadistic clergy, Cosmo develops a crush on aspiring model Raphina (Lucy Boynton).
Logically, he puts together a Duran Duran-esque new romantic band in order to impress her, egged on by his hippy-ish older brother, portrayed with devilish insouciance by Jack Reynor.
“It’s a concept I’ve had on the back-burner since Once,” says Carney. “A kid dreams of forming a band and then he does it. That very loosely was my story. I’ve chipped away at the idea over the years.”
While Sing Street is upbeat, it doesn’t shy away from the pain of being a newcomer on a very rough block. “It was certainly traumatic. However, children simply deal with it. They play whatever hand they get. They don’t ask for new cards. Well maybe kids nowadays do. They didn’t back then. You knuckled down and got on with it. Kids have a great enthusiasm for life. It was traumatic. On the other hand, it was my youth and I owned it. I wouldn’t trade it for a second.”
With the recession at its peak, Cosmo and his band take refuge in the alternate realities conjured by post-punk and bands such as The Jam, The Cure and A-ha. The soundtrack is brimming with hits from the era, supplemented by original songs written by Carney and Gary Clark of the group Danny Wilson.
One band consciously omitted from this love letter to 1980s rock is U2, who, in the timeline of the movie, were already taking over the world.
“They were new romantics for a while,” says Carney. “Then they became a Christian rock band. Once you become a Christian rock band that’s sort of it — you can’t be anything else. But it’s true — Ireland didn’t produce any of those sorts of [new romantic] acts. It’s that aspect of having U2 as your big brother. Is it necessarily a good thing?
“The same could be said of Jim Sheridan and Neil Jordan — these mammoth, Oscar-winning filmmakers. You look up at them and it’s not that you want to be them — but they’re just there. Sometimes that can be too big for a small country like Ireland.”
Sing Street crackles with joie de vivre. But there are glimmers of darkness too, with Don Wycherley embodying the darker side of pre-Celtic Tiger Ireland as a maniacal Christian Brother.
“He gave it great colour,” says Carney. “It could have been such a cliche. He made the character weirdly funny — a demonic priest. He didn’t go Father Ted. But he isn’t fully serious either. It’s fantastic.”
Carney was an archetypal starving artist when he made Once for a budget of €112,000 in 2007. The movie was a huge international hit, its stars Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova winning the Oscar for best song for ‘Falling Slowly’. Yet Carney’s career hasn’t quite been on an ever-upward trajectory since. He followed Once with 2009’s Zonad, a quirky comedy that nobody quite seemed to understand (and many actively disliked). Does one learn as much from failure as from success?
“Every film should be failure,” he says. “The miracles are the ones that work... It’s like when you’re playing football and you kick the ball the right way and you don’t quite know how you did it. You have all of these amazing filmmakers and they make four or five great films and then they screw one up so badly and they can’t figure out what went wrong. The real miracle is they got four or five out of the park in the first place.”
Learning the accent and the music
As Sing Street romantic interest Raphina, Lucy Boynton, 22, faced several distinct challenges. She had to make Raphina feel like a real person, even as hero Cosmo places her on a pedestal. Trickier yet, the privately-educated Londoner had to master a Dublin inner city accent.
“It was such a point of stress, getting the accent right,” she nods.”I watched a lot of Irish films and many interviews with Irish actors. Eventually you start to pick up on the idiosyncrasies. “
She also received an education in the pop music of the era, something with which she was not especially au fait. “My music knowledge wasn’t fantastic. And it still isn’t great. John helped improve my iTunes. And Jack Reynor would arrive on set with his iPod speakers and his Steely Dan records.”
Boynton is the daughter of an editor and a travel writer. She began acting aged 12 with a part in the period biopic Miss Potter (about children’s writer and illustrator Beatrix Potter). She has spent her adolescence on film sets — an experienced she enjoyed but which she found occasionally disorientating.
“Pretty much all my life I’ve been the youngest person on set,” she says “I would be going to set aged 13, 14 and be surrounded by 24- year-olds. I was very mature and had a work ethic. But it was strange going back to school after that.
“I learned early on to keep the two worlds separate. Unless you’re in the industry, as a 12- year-old you’re just not going to understand it. At times, I definitely resented going back to school and having to do homework.”