Culture Storyline hits close to home
Director John Carney’s real Dublin school was the inspiration behind writes Hannah McKee.
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.