In a pop culture world dominated by so many viewing options, it’s tough for directors to make their work stand out from the pack. Great films can arrive and disappear quickly, and it takes both luck and a unique perspective to thrive. A prime example is John Carney, who’s carved out a niche following the surprise success of Once in 2007. Packed with heart and music, Carney’s films work as modern fairy tales. There’s enough realism to keep us on board, yet we know they’re optimistic fantasies. We believe that Carney’s characters are capable of amazing things and root for them to succeed.
Another factor in Carney’s success is building killer soundtracks. It’s easy to love the characters when their songs are so good. Once wouldn’t provide the same impact with the typical actors in place for Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova. We never doubt that the Guy and Girl are talented musicians capable of writing classic songs. The hurdles are bigger in Begin Again, particularly with a well-known star like Keira Knightley. Even so, she sells Gretta’s skills from the first performance at open mic night. It falls a little short of Once, but matching that gem is nearly impossible. Knightley and Mark Ruffalo play music lovers clinging to that enthusiasm to overcome sad times. Both deliver great performances that strike a chord, especially as their bond grows.
This brings me to Sing Street, a love letter to the music of the 1980s. It’s an easy sell to viewers that grew up listening to artists like Duran Duran, A-ha, The Cure, and even Phil Collins. Our entry point is a 15-year-old music fan looking to start a band; the difference here is the innocence. Conor (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo) is just discovering music with help from his older brother Brendan (Jack Reynor). He’s initially a terrible singer and can’t play guitar, but that changes quickly once the floodgates open. Conor writes good songs very quickly, but it’s hard to care because we’re so charmed.
Carney understands how to delve into universal themes, and that’s why his films click with a wide range of viewers. I haven’t been 15 in a while, but I still remember what it’s like as a teen to pine for a girl that seems out of reach. Resembling a young Fairuza Balk, Raphina (Lucy Boynton) is only a year older than Conor yet looks so different. Standing on the porch with a cigarette hanging from her mouth, she is rock ‘n’ roll. Conor’s idea to cast her in a music video (for a band that doesn’t exist) is transparent but cute enough to work. Given the tight deadline, Conor pushes himself to new heights. Watching Conor learn how to write songs with his new buddy Darren (Ben Carolan) is brilliant. Like the Guy and Girl in Once, they just get how the other thinks when it comes to music.
A key factor in Sing Street’s success is Carney’s choice to cast unknown actors in lead roles. Only Aiden Gillen and Maria Doyle Kennedy are recognizable as Conor’s parents. It’s similar to the wonderful Lukas Moodysson film We Are the Best!, which also took place in the ‘80s and used fresh faces. Both depict kids in working-class families that face economic challenges. The music helps Conor push aside the fact that his parents are getting divorced. Raphina is struggling as a model and connects with Conor’s idealism. They make a good pair, and he doesn’t seem so much younger than her by the end.
Another joy with Carney’s films is the pure fun in the music. Even a goofy number like “Drive It Like You Stole It” connects because everyone commits to it. This is the type of song that 15-year-olds would play when they’re just getting started. The anti-authority message of “Brown Shoes” charms because it’s such a basic sentiment. Don’t create dumb rules just to be in charge! The upbeat acoustic beat of “A Beautiful Sea” is a melody that would work in any era. The songs fit in the ‘80s but aren’t trapped by them. Carney is 3/3 in directing movies that send me scurrying to pick up the soundtracks. They’re a blast to experience and lose little in repeat viewings. I can’t wait to see what Carney does next.
Top 5 John Carney Music SequencesI’m only familiar with Carney’s three major projects, and it was still hard to narrow the list to five choices. To avoid tipping the scales too much, I’m restricting my picks to no more than two from a single movie. I had so much fun researching this list and fell into a YouTube rabbit hole of great scenes. The top pick was easy, but the rest were difficult. I couldn’t help but include one honorable mention at the start. This is my site, so I set the rules! I’d love to hear your choices and suspect they’ll differ quite a lot from mine. This is by no means a definitive ranking.
Honorable Mention: Shooting the Video for “The Riddle of the Model” — Sing Street
The band’s first video shoot is so lo-fi and wonderfully fits with the ‘80s. Along with the ridiculous outfits, the scenes of them running through the streets are so familiar. It’s the type of video that kids trying to imitate their idols would make. The song is perfectly odd yet actually works as its own thing. It’s silly, weird, and energetic in the best way possible. There are so many little touches in this scene, including the dummy in case Raphina doesn’t show.
5. The band records “Tell Me If You Wanna Go Home” on the roof – Begin Again
Performed at night on a rooftop with the whole band, “Tell Me If You Wanna Go Home” is the culmination of their entire project. With Dan (Mark Ruffalo) grabbing a bass and his daughter Violet (Hailee Steinfeld) adding the guitar solo, it’s such a communal atmosphere. Everyone’s having a great time and just enjoying the process of playing music. This scene is the essence of what I love about Carney’s films. The extra touch of neighbors yelling at the band near the end makes it even better.
4. Dan sees instruments backing Gretta for “Step You Can’t Take Back” – Begin Again
Near the start of Begin Again, Gretta (Keira Knightley) performs “Step You Can’t Take Back” solo at the urging of her friend. There’s a strange moment at the end where Dan seems crazily excited by the song. Later on, Carney brilliantly shows us the other side of this scene. Dan sees the piano, bass, and other instruments backing Gretta. The record producer arranges the song in his head, and it’s a cool peak inside Dan’s mind. The shot of all the instruments playing with Gretta would be ludicrous in lesser hands, but it works here.
3. Conor imagines a Back to the Future scene for “Drive It While You Stole It” video – Sing Street
I love the idea that Conor views a prom in the U.S. through the lens of Back to the Future! What’s especially fun is that the dance in that movie took place in 1955. While not quite reaching the heights of “I’ll Have to Dance with Cassie” in God Help the Girl, Conor’s fantasy is so charming. Including hand claps, a sing along, and even a saxophone, it’s such a blast to hear. The lyrics are fairly dumb, but they also fit the overall theme. It’s Conor’s life, and he’s not messing around. Watching up-tight characters letting loose and wearing cool outfits is a bonus.
2. The Girl sings “If You Want Me” while walking the streets at night — Once
I’ve seen Once many times, and it’s easily one of my favorite films. I struggled mightily to leave off certain scenes, particularly “When Your Mind’s Made Up”. The list’s top choice was easy, but this one was trickier. Seeing Marketa Irglova take center stage with only headphones and a piece of paper is brilliant. When you add Glen Hansard’s voice to the mix, it all clicks. Even when viewed over and over, there’s still so much power from this scene. It’s just the Girl walking through the street, but it’s that direct approach (along with the gorgeous song) that makes it work.
1. The Guy and Girl play “Falling Slowly” in the music shop — Once
I first saw Once on a whim; my wife had free tickets to an early screening. Hansard, Irglova, and Carney were doing a traveling roadshow to promote the film. I liked it from the start, but this scene is where I fell in love with the movie. The song is beautiful, but it’s the way the characters interact while playing it that makes it work. It’s so simple too! They just sit down with a guitar and piano and create something incredible. The joy they get from playing together is evident, and that connection crossed into real life. You can’t fake that kind of chemistry.
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