Cul­ture Sto­ry­line hits close to home

Di­rec­tor John Carney’s real Dublin school was the in­spi­ra­tion be­hind writes Han­nah McKee.

The Dominion Post - - Culture -

John Carney’s stay­ing pretty tight-lipped about just how closely his lat­est film re­flects his own ado­les­cence. Sure, he was a kid in 1980s Dublin who started a band to fit in, but that is about as far as the clarity goes with fact and fic­tion in Sing Street.

One thing is for cer­tain – the film is a tes­ta­ment to the writer and di­rec­tor’s love for the 1980s – ‘‘the last great decade of orig­i­nal mu­sic’’.

Drama-com­edy Sing Street is jam-packed with hit af­ter hit from the likes of The Cure, Du­ran Du­ran, A-Ha and The Clash, with a good dose of eye­liner and perms thrown in too.

It is not un­like Carney to go for a mu­si­cally-themed film, hav­ing writ­ten and di­rected both 2007’s Once, about a pair of strug­gling mu­si­cians in Dublin, and 2013’s Be­gin Again, in which Keira Knight­ley and Mark Ruf­falo play a mu­si­cally-minded duo on a road to self dis­cov­ery.

But this time, Carney wanted to do some­thing that was per­sonal, not just a mu­si­cal story ‘‘for the sake of it’’, he says.

So he looked to his own story, when a teenage Carney started a band as a way to de­fine him­self, a way to im­press.

He did not be­long to any for­mal groups or stereo­types, he was not a ‘‘sporty guy’’ or aca­demic type, but, like every kid, he says, he wanted to be part of some­thing.

‘‘Form­ing a band was my way of ex­press­ing that, and it re­ally did ful­fil an aw­ful lot in me.

‘‘I’m sure that’s why a lot of other peo­ple are in bands, they don’t quite fit into other things.’’

It’s the sit­u­a­tion the char­ac­ter Conor (Fer­dia Walsh-Peelo) finds him­self in when his once-wealthy par­ents make him switch from a posh school to a rough state school to save money.

One par­tic­u­lar thing Carney and Conor have in com­mon, is be­ing sent to Catholic all-boys school Synge Street, and hav­ing to nav­i­gate its dog-eat-dog school­yard.

Care­fully sewn through­out the film’s de­light­fully light­hearted and funny mo­ments are more sober­ing themes of abuse and hard­ship.

An av­enue for this is Synge Street’s shady and sadis­tic head­mas­ter, Brother Baxter.

Carney says Brother Baxter is not based on any one head­mas­ter, teacher or brother, but an amal­ga­ma­tion of peo­ple he has met.

The film also ex­plores the com­plex­i­ties of bro­ken mar­riages in Ire­land dur­ing the pe­riod, when di­vorce was not al­lowed.

The par­ents in the film, played by Maria Doyle Kennedy (Down­ton Abbey) and Ai­dan Gillen (Game of Thrones), are locked in an unhappy mar­riage, cre­at­ing a toxic at­mos­phere of re­sent­ment which has a pro­found effect on their kids.

De­spite these heavy themes, Sing Street is un­doubt­edly funny. But ask Carney, and he will tell you that was an ac­ci­dent.

‘‘It wasn’t in­ten­tion­ally a com­edy, I think it was ac­ci­den­tally a com­edy.

‘‘I don’t try to be funny and it’s cer­tainly not writ­ten as a com­edy. It just ended up be­ing funny be­cause that sit­u­a­tion just is funny, you’d be a fool to make it very serious.’’

Carney’s de­ci­sion to seek out un­knowns to fill the roles of the Sing Street band paid off.

Au­di­tions all over Ire­land at­tracted thou­sands of young hope­fuls, the brief – any­one who thought they could play an in­stru­ment.

‘‘I didn’t want them to be like that [Irish Stage School] Bil­lie Barry sort of vibe. I wanted it to be very nat­u­ral­is­tic.

‘‘It was just re­ally like putting a band to­gether, it was great fun and the im­por­tant thing was that it looked right and it sounded right, like it was an au­then­tic group of peo­ple com­ing to­gether. It was a lot of fun cast­ing it and we’re all still good friends, they come around to my house for tea.’’

While Carney loves 80s mu­sic, he does not hold the same sen­ti­ment for the fash­ion, say­ing the cast had a great time putting on the cos­tumes, but could not be­lieve peo­ple dressed like that.

‘‘When I see kids wear­ing 80s clothes now and they think they’re cool I think, ‘oh my god, for 20 years we couldn’t run fast enough away from the fash­ion’. It was a ridicu­lous time for clothes, but the mu­sic was great.

‘‘It was a great decade for mu­sic and I think, in many senses, it was sort of the last great decade of orig­i­nal mu­sic, noth­ing sounds like that any­more and I miss that mu­sic a lot I have to say, the 80s it was a great decade to grow up in.’’

What sep­a­rates Sing Street from other films about bands is that the orig­i­nal mu­sic is sur­pris­ingly good.

Carney, who was joined by Gary Clark in writ­ing the orig­i­nal mu­sic, says he’s very happy with the qual­ity of the tracks.

‘‘I’m proud of the mu­sic in the film, I think it sounds great and plau­si­ble.

‘‘The songs are bet­ter in the film than my real band when I was a teenager, I wouldn’t im­pose my real band’s mu­sic on any­one, that would be a hor­ror film.’’

au­di­tions at­tracted thou­sands of young hope­fuls from all over Ire­land, with di­rec­tor John Carney want­ing to fill the roles with un­tapped tal­ent.

Irish di­rec­tor John Carney.

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