Thursday, April 21, 2016

John Carney | Sing Street

separating the song from its leap into being
by Douglas Messerli

John Carney (writer. composer with Gary Clark, and director) Sing Street / 2016

In the tradition of films like Billy Elliot, John Carney’s Sing Street focuses upon youthful dissatisfaction and an attempt to escape the day-to-day difficulties of growing up in a poor Irish community through art. Yet the central character in Sing Street, Conor Lalor (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo) has it much better than did Billy, in part, obviously, because creating a band is far more normative in his society than is studying ballet. And prior to the sudden financial difficulties of the Lalor family, Conor studied in a somewhat prestige institution. With the loss of family income, Conor is pulled out of his old school and placed in a free state, Catholic-run institution, Synge Street, the street evidentially named after the noted Irish playwright. 

Although he is quickly met with hostility, particularly coming from the threats of a schoolyard bully and the brutal headmaster, Brother Baxter (Don Wycherley), Conor seems to be a particularly level-headed and almost unflappable boy, ignoring the insistence by Brother Baxter that we wear black shoes to school (his family cannot afford to replace his brown ones) and later in the film taunting the bully with the idea that he can only try to stop something, while creating nothing. Baxter, however, later physically abuses him when the boy wears make-up to school.
       With seemingly equal ease, and simply to impress the slightly older girl Raphina (Lucy Boynton), who waits on a door stoop near the school each day, Conor determines to start up a band, determining to use the parentless Raphina in the video of their performance. 
       Pairing up with the multi-instrumentalist Eamon (Mark McKenna), a local black migrant, Ngig (Percy Chamuruka), and two younger musicians, the new band, playing on the street name where their school stands, suddenly becomes Sing Street, at first performing 1980s “covers.” 
       When Conor’s older brother Brendan (Jack Reynor) hears the first tapes, he challenges his beloved younger brother to create his own songs, shoving records from his extensive collection into Conor’s hands. With Brendan’s challenges and Raphina as his inspiration, the boy suddenly, and seemingly effortlessly, creates the group’s first memorable, and quite charming song, “The Riddle of the Model,” which, dressed in somewhat motely costumes and makeup (the makeup applied to Conor by Raphina), the group performs on video. 
       As Brendan hands his brother various different kinds of records, the group morphs from the style of Duran Duran to music influenced by The Cure, The Jam, Hall & Oates and Joe Jackson—the multi-talented Carney inserting the originals in between the new creations which he co-wrote with Gary Clark.
       The director, who admits to hating movie musicals and Broadway fare where the actors suddenly burst into song, carefully presents all of these many musical numbers just as that, “musical numbers,” punctuating rather than growing out of the dramatic plot. If they do indeed sometimes refer to story events, they merely “refer” to them rather than expand or further reveal them. For such a fine creator of musicals—Carney was also the director of Once and Begin Again, the former becoming a Broadway hit—it is too bad that his charming songs cannot simply move more fluidly from the story, rather than merely reiterating plot events. It’s as if, for Carney, and probably many of his generation, no one ever spontaneously breaks into song. Or as if it is somehow embarrassing to be so much in love that one simply has to sing. Carney sees the musical numbers not as a generator of story but rather as a result of it.
        In a question and answer session with the four leads and the director after the film, Carney seemed to indicate that the only film musicals he truly loved were ones that appeared to mock the conventions of musical theater—works such as Singing in the Rain and Guys and Dolls, describing Marlon Brando and Jean Simmons as performing their songs somewhat “tongue-in-cheek.” I think he has simply misunderstood their lesser singing talents—which are nonetheless extremely charming—as lacking seriousness; in point of fact, Frank Sinatra complained that Brando took is role far too seriously, demanding retake after retake.
        But that is, perhaps, all beside the point. Carney has found a way to make musicals that work as counterpoint to plot that are still quite charming and enjoyable; the middle-aged woman next to me in the theater was outwardly weeping tears of joy and sympathy by the time Rafina and Conor (now renamed Cosmo) boated off—hopefully—to England, with only their god-given talents to offer in return for food and board. And I too dropped a few tears.
       In the men’s room, after, I asked the now 16-year old Ferdia Walsh-Peelo (only 14 at the time of shooting) what his next film might be. “I don’t have one yet,” he replied, as his naturally reddened Irish cheeks turned a bit more crimson, “but I hope to.” “You certainly will,” I smiled back.

Los Angeles, April 20, 2016

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