John Carney Mines the '80s for Coming-of-Age Music Movie 'Sing Street'

John Carney Mines the '80s for Coming-of-Age Music Movie 'Sing Street'
Courtesy of Elevation Pictures
For nearly a decade, Irish director John Carney has done the impossible. He's made movies about people making music that are not only watchable for non-musicians, but relatable too.
The Frames bassist-turned-filmmaker first gained international attention with 2007's Once, a Sundance smash shot on a shoestring budget that was nominated for an Academy Award and made its stars, Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová (aka now defunct duo the Swell Season) world-renowned songwriters.
His 2013 return to music-themed movies, Begin Again, wasn't as immediately well-received (partly due to the polarizing presence of Adam Levine), but still managed to capture some of the magic of his first famous film.
But Sing Street, Carney's ninth film and first strictly Irish endeavour in four years, is both his strongest and most personal effort yet.
The film follows Conor, a boy who is forced into a decrepit Catholic school after his family falls on hard times. It's there that he meets a ragtag crew of like-minded misfits and, after seeing a beautiful girl just off campus one day, decides to form a band (primarily in the hopes of getting her to star in their music video).
Set in 1985, Sing Street is the kind of film that captures the wide-eyed optimism and melancholy of growing up so perfectly it's hard not to imagine it was based, at least in part, on real life. In fact, the film is set at Synge Street CBS — the same school Carney attended as a youth in Dublin. As Carney explains, that's no coincidence.
"The real reason for doing this film was to try and remember what it was like to form my school band," the director says. "My girlfriend and I found a bunch of diaries I had written when I was 12 and 13 years old and I just seemed like such a cocky brat of a kid… putting this band together, really believing in myself. It didn't quite compute with who I am.
"At the time it was like, 'Was that really me and did I have that confidence and swagger?' And I realized it was all sort of affectation. It was all put on to sort of get me through school."
Although parts of the film resemble his personal coming-of-age in the 1980s, from the ambitious high school band to connecting with an older, sage-like brother through music (played by Glassland's Jack Reynor in the film), Carney says the film has many fictional moments: "Making this movie I realized how much I'd actually forgotten about the past and how hard it was to put the pieces back together the older you get."
Still, whether you grew up in the '80s or, like Conor, are discovering the sounds of the Cure for the first time, there's something about Sing Street that evidently resonates with viewers on an emotional level (it currently holds a 96% audience approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes).
Part of that has to do with the music. Although U2's Bono and The Edge were originally tied to the project, conflicting schedules kept them away, leading Carney to enlist Scottish songwriter Gary Clark (who contributed two of the movie's main songs, power pop anthem "Drive It Like You Stole It" and piano ballad "To Find You"). Clark helped flesh out musical ideas, some of which were originally captured on Carney's iPhone during the screenwriting process.
"First and foremost, our ambition was to make great songs. Make sure they were great in and of themselves and not really worry about the sound," Carney says. "It would have been lame to make them sounds '80s-ish. Also, so many bands are parodying the '80s now, it's sort of boring."
Sing Street is out now in Toronto and April 29 in Montreal and Vancouver through Elevation Pictures. The movie will be out in Halifax, Ottawa, Winnipeg, Calgary, Edmonton, Victoria and other cities in Quebec on May 13.