To say that Sing Street is a passion project for producer, writer, co-songwriter, and director John Carney is not only an understatement, but also a redundancy. For two decades and counting, the Irish filmmaker has patiently carved out an intimate filmography that has seemingly worked in tandem with his own bleeding heart.
His best stories, however, involve his passion for music, which is why countless songwriters across the world continue to cite 2007’s Oscar-winning Once as a major source of inspiration. With Sing Street, Carney dials back the years to 1985 and revisits his hometown of Dublin, where a young boy starts a band to win a girl’s affection.
Chock full of vintage hits by Duran Duran, The Cure, Hall and Oates, and The Jam in addition to original works by Carney and Danny Wilson singer-songwriter Gary Clark, Sing Street dances around with a jovial charm that’s addictive and innocent enough to revisit again and again and again. It’s one of our best reviewed films of the year.
In anticipation of its nationwide release, Consequence of Sound‘s Editor-in-Chief Michael Roffman sat down with the multi-talented filmmaker to discuss the story’s themes and original music. What’s more, we’ve even secured an exclusive behind-the-scenes featurette that offers a peek behind what is easily this year’s greatest soundtrack (see above).
Before the credits roll, you dedicate the film “For Brothers Everywhere.” Was Conor’s (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo) relationship with his brother, Brendan (Jack Reynor), always the impetus behind the story?
That was something that developed over time. That wasn’t the original starting point. It just happened naturally. I have a brother I’m very close with and who influenced me with music and with all my family, but that was not the original intention.
The original intention was to start on the kid and the school band, and then once I did that it was like, “Oh, but that can be this character, and that makes sense, and he can live here,” and it just organically came together.
Was your brother older like Brendan?
There was my late brother, so I don’t really want to get into it, but the film says everything I have to say for now about the significance of that for me, the significance of a person who kind of had a different outlook for you than your parents because your parents are there to protect you and your parents are there to turn you into the best person you can be.
Whereas your brother is there to try and make you happy and hope that you’ll just be happy in life and doesn’t care if you’re gay or straight or transgender, or if you’re into the Cure, or if you want to become a banker or a road sweeper. Your siblings don’t care; they just want to see you happy. Your parents want to see you happy, but they also want to see you rich and doing well.
You know what I mean?
They become a life raft for you in a way.
Yeah. I felt that I moved in my siblings’ slipstream and that was easier for me. They were the lead cyclists and I was tucked in at the back. I just feel that there’s a stronger headwind when you’re leading the group, there’s just more coming at you. Your parents are a bit younger, and they don’t know where to put you down, and then by the time they’ve had four, they’re like throwing you down.
So then the younger ones get everything easier.
I think that’s kind of true. My two brothers and my sister were the ones that I wanted to get validation from and impress me with everything they said with how they dressed and how they looked. When I was speaking to my own friends, I was almost sort of imagining what my siblings approve of, and that’s every young brother or sister. They just want to be validated in their way.
Every character in Sing Street has their own share of conflicts, and you really give each character their fair shake. The bully, for example. There’s something touching how you layer a character that might otherwise be an antagonistic foil.
I’m glad you think that because it’s hard to keep all those balls in the air. Because it’s very much about Ferdia and his Connor character, so sometimes the other characters feel a bit thin, but they’re actually quite well developed and well worked out. I’ve just kind of pared them back to their defining features, and I left it at that because I just didn’t have time to get into an ensemble thing, so once the band is set up, they’re kind of just left in a way because it really becomes about Ferdia or Connor’s story.
I keep saying Ferdia’s story because I think he just plays it so well and is so comfortable in the role. The film is almost about him; in a strange way, it’s less about me now because I did not have that confidence and I was not in a successful band and I didn’t immigrate to England to find my fortune. In a sense, I stayed in Ireland, actually. I’m thinking about Ferdia being 16 in LA with sunglasses on and people coming up to him in the street…
So in a way, once I cast Ferdia as Connor, the film took on a very different aspect to my real story, which was way more one of struggle and doubt and that my confidence was sort of bravado and bluff. His confidence seems genuine. Nothing phases this kid. He gets hit in the face and is like, “How dare you?” Whereas that would kind of make me doubt and reevaluate myself, and any confidence to kind of piss other kids off was kind of trying to be liked or was a face or was sort of an act.
I think most of my childhood was kind of filled with doubt.
So, things were much bleaker for you than what we see on screen.
Well, the 80s were just bleaker, for sure. You never got any of that confidence in the ’80s. Anyone walking around like that in the ’80s just got a punch, you know? People didn’t have a lot of cash or money.
It’s hard to know. There’s no better or worse. There are things now that are great, and kids are so much faster and smarter or they seem to be, but they’ve also lost something of the physical world with their iPads and iPods and all that stuff, obviously that goes without saying.
Their smartphones sometimes make them a bit dumber, but overall, they’re probably a lot smarter and better off than they were back in the ’80s.
It’s interesting. The world seems so much more open when you have everything at your fingertips. For instance, everything outside of Ireland is a mystery to Conor and most of the kids in Sing Street. The idea of trying to get off the island, or see the world, the perspective changes when you can search for anything.
I think you’re right. The real bottom line, the fundamental game changer in my life, is the Internet, and what I’ve realized is that it cannot be overstated: it’s huge, it’s enormous, and the devices don’t help.
I find it increasingly harder to deal with the Internet. I really am close to throwing my smartphone out the window and going on my Facebook account to say, “I’m on e-mail. I check my e-mail at six or seven after dinner with a cup of coffee, and I look forward to seeing who’s there.” No more Facebook, no more Twitter.
I have a Twitter feed. I have like 400 followers, so that wouldn’t be hard, but Facebook, when I’m bored, it’s the perfect mind numbingly stupid distraction.
Well, it must have been refreshing to revisit a more analog state of mind.
Well, no because that’s the film. The reality of it is every time we would cut, they would check their Twitter feeds, and now even on tour with the two leads in the film, we get out of the screening and they both go online to see what was said about the screening.
Then you go to a restaurant and everyone who was at the screening is on Twitter, and the kids are checking it and I’m like, “That’s such a strange impulse.” And I have the same impulse now. I wonder about a photograph a girl took of me and you’re like “How bad do I look?” and then you see it and are like, “Oh my god.”
You don’t actually enjoy the meal in the same way, and you don’t have the same post-mortem of things and that’s it, there’s no going back. I’m not complaining about it and I’m not bemoaning, I’m just saying, personally for me, for however many more years of life I get, I’m going to dispense with the smartphone — not the Internet obviously, because that would be crazy — but just the constant beep beep beep.
It’s like a diet.
But a really big diet. Like I’ll check my e-mails for an hour a day or I’ll go online for an hour a day.
That would work.
It should work, also for Uber or maps, there’s always somebody around. There’s always somebody around and you can just rely on other people’s phones when you need it.
I think that’s fair. [Laughs.] Going back to your upbringing, though, would you say you had a rougher experience while attending the Christian Brothers school?
I didn’t have a rougher time than that. I was more worried and more anxious than the film comes off. I was incredibly anxious about going to that school, and it was probably a bad thing for me to go to that school, but I couldn’t get into a better school and I don’t think we had the money to go to a better school, so I just had to sort of deal with it.
But I wonder, in hindsight, if it’s good to take a fish out of the water. I’m not convinced it is, actually. There’s something that I lack about the team spirit that I didn’t get in school because it was such a culture shock for me to go to this inner city school and to be studied and looked at in this way as sort of a “Who is this weird kid?”
I was the outsider in that school. That is just a fact and I tried to disguise it and I put on masks and I put on accents and I tried to deal. It was a constant daily thing of “How do I deal with being so different?” I think some good things came of it, but I think generally it’s good for kids to stay in … well, not their groups or their tribes or something … but I don’t know.
Did you already have a circle of friends at your previous private school?
Yeah. It was sort of a shock to me not to continue, but I think, in many ways, it was a good thing. I mean, obviously it wasn’t just good or just bad.
How long was it before you started your band?
I started the band early. I started the band in the second year of school.
Did you find everyone similar to Conor’s search?
It wasn’t that hard. I met Eamon Griffin, who Eamon in the film is based on, and he was a musical prodigy who had all these instruments and we got on very well. I was incredibly dedicated to music when I was young because it was the opposite of everything, it was the alternative to everything, and it was also the key to so much in my life.
It was the key to identity, it was the key to girls, and it did so much for me being in that band because it gave me a role that I didn’t have in school because I wasn’t on a sports team and I didn’t have a position to play and I wasn’t academically gifted and school was not for me and it gave me an identity. Even the bullies would say, “That’s the guy from the band.”
Did you have a sympathetic bully that kind of came around?
I just thought that side of the story about the bully joining the band was just a really great idea. It’s kind of an allegory for how, you know, there are a lot of tough people who work in the industry and how they got there, and I thought it could be interesting if they kind of recruited him, and it could be plausible.
I didn’t end up doing this as plausibly as I wanted to do it, but I do think you have to go up to the bully and face him. You just can’t keep running. I didn’t get bullied, but I did get hit once by a guy and [the bully in the film] is kind of based on that guy. I don’t know where he is now but I’d like to meet him.
You could watch the movie together.
Yeah, watch the movie together …. what a bit of therapy.
I’m interested about the songwriting in the film, especially with Gary Clark. Last summer, I spoke with Craig Wedren about how he tackled all the original music for David Wain’s Wet Hot American Summer reunion for Netflix, specifically how he was able to create songs that felt like echoes of that era’s top artists. Did emulation play a big part in the songwriting?
Yeah, we came up with a loose ballpark, but we didn’t want the soundtrack to sound like it was a parody of the Eighties. We were very insistent that it didn’t feel that way. That was the one thing that I was let down by Almost Famous, which is a great film, but the music I never bought. They did a good job and, in a sense, I think that Cameron Crowe was right to probably go, “Gimme some ’70s-sounding music and let’s get on with this,” because it let the rest of the film focus, but it is a weak link in the film because it seems like somebody had been given the job to go off and sound like Led Zeppelin.
But for this, any band that sent us something that sounded like an Eighties parody … we have enough Eighties parodies at the moment — it’s so the order of the day. Some people are getting away with it, but then on the other end of the spectrum people are getting sued for it, so I don’t know. It seems like America wants to have its cake and eat it; it wants people to parody music that they love, but when it’s done too well… Like Pharrell! It’s like, “Oh we’ll sue you,” but you can’t sue people for… I mean, I’m as pissed off at “Uptown Funk” as everyone else because I can tell you where every single beat of that song comes from.
[Laughs.] I’ve been saying that for a year.
Yeah. If you know anything about music, you can, but I don’t mind. That’s fine. It works. People buy it. That’s what amazes me. But again, for this, I wanted it to sound like… I mean obviously “Drive It Like You Stole It” has the same drum pattern as “Maneater” but it’s also “Part Time Lover” by Stevie Wonder, but it’s not. Somehow, Gary managed to make the song his own and to make the song original, and that was the key to me.
I didn’t want something that just sounds Eighties-ish like, “Oh, that chorus is from Duran Duran,” and then it goes into what sounds a little bit like Flock of Seagulls. I wanted it to just be great because songs that were around in the Eighties were just great songs, they happened to be produced by producers who were working in what now I hope we realize is a limited soundscape, but the songs are great. Like a good A-ha song is really a piece of pop opera — it’s really a great song. It’s as good as a Gershwin song or a Rodger and Hammerstein song, I think personally.
At the same time, there’s something very natural about watching a kid create original music based on what he’s currently listening to and experiencing firsthand. There’s a great quote by Paul Westerberg in the new Replacements biography, Trouble Boys, where he admits: “You’re either a genius or a clever thief.”
Yeah, they’re not just going to take their guitar and make this original thing.
Final question: What’s your favorite song in the film?
Favorite song? I actually … there’s a song, but only two minutes long, called “Girls” that they play at the concert. I think it’s a great song; it’s kind of edgy, there’s a kind of grit in it.
It has a kind of Billy Joel thing.
It does actually, and I thought it had kind of a Talking Heads thing, a kind of performance art thing to it. So, that’s my favorite kind of driving song, but I think the best is “To Find You”, the kind of slow song. If you see Gary Clark do that in person… It’s kind of a simple song, but it’s deceptive … it’s a sophisticated, lovely song.
That’s what got my wife.
And then I like the end song that Adam [Levine] and myself and Glen Hansard had a kind of little co-write on. But I would say “Drive It Like You Stole It” is the song that’s gonna be the hit from the film.
Sing Street is currently in limited release and opens wide this Friday, April 22nd.