There are a lot of movies about musicians out there, but when it comes to representing the experience of musicians from a musician’s perspective, you’d have a hard time finding a filmmaker more committed than John Carney. Carney started out making music videos for his band, The Frames, and his first theatrical hit came when he enlisted his old Frames bandmate Glen Hansard and another musician, Markéta Irglová, to make Once, a no-budget romance between two folk artists that focused on the music and the compatibility of two artistic minds at work. Carney blazed ahead after Once, showing no sign of romanticizing his low-budget origins with Begin Again, a musician rom-com with movie stars and a more mainstream aesthetic than Once -- but if the look was more palatable, the story was prone to potentially alienating divergences, from lengthy financial meetings to watching instruments playing themselves.
Carney’s new movie, Sing Street, is both glossier than Once and more familiar than Begin Again, but the slick production doesn’t diminish Carney’s powers of observation, either musically or emotionally. Carney transports us back into the Dublin of the 1980s, where we follow Cosmo (whose given name is Conor), a high school student who falls in love with a cooler, older girl, Raphina, after his parents' financial troubles push him into a new school. She wants to be a model, so he decides to make a band so he can recruit her help making music videos.
If the first two films in Carney’s unofficial musician cycle took you into the creative process of established musicians, Sing Street opens up new possibilities for Carney by centering around an artist as he learns to become an artist.
Carney’s movies have always been characterized by an involving tenderness, which as it turns out is an especially moving attitude for an adult to take toward the ambitions of kids. Listening to a pair of 15-year-old boys talk over their simple pop lyrics, like “she’s got dangerous eyes,” without their thoughts and discoveries being either lionized or dismissed feels uncomfortable and new, but the boys remain unaware that what they’re saying could be embarrassing. I like that when we go inside Cosmo's head, his image of the perfect video isn’t nearly as cool or as interesting as the half-successes he’s actually been able to shoot. Carney notes all of Cosmo's fumbling, all of the band’s dropped cymbals and blatant imitations of adult bands, but there’s no judgment attached to their inadequacies. Carney’s camera floats over the boys with the delicacy of a parent filming their child learning to walk. It’s not that you want the newborns to stumble around forever, but the transience of this period of vulnerability makes it almost painful to watch — celebration and mourning occur in the same moment.
Watching movies made by men about men as a woman can sometimes be an exercise in impotent frustration, and most of the rest of the time gender seems irrelevant or at least inoffensive. But every now and then, a film by and about men speaks to the experience of living as a woman, and Carney’s interest in portraying the honest experience of artists winds up having the maybe accidental effect of being just as honest about gender.
Sing Street documents not just Cosmo's first stumbles in music, but his first romance, too, and rather than treating music and love as two discrete worlds, Cosmo is a character who experiences both at once and in relation to each other. Just as he’s being taught how to be lead a band, he’s also being taught how to lead in a relationship, and from the start, his embarrassments and his successes in one arena are the same as his embarrassments and his successes in the other.
Cosmo begins Sing Street shy and unassuming, the permanently red cheeks of actor Ferdia Walsh-Peelo making for the perfect picture of cherubic inexperience, but as the film develops he starts to show flashes of confidence. He’s prodded by his brother to take risks, prodded by Raphina to act without deference, prodded by the boys at school to stand tall, until those flashes of confidence become sustained periods of it. There comes a point in the movie when Raphina calls him a schoolboy and he walks away — it’s not clear when the change happened, but it is clear that she’s misidentified him. If Cosmo starts the movie as a schoolboy, by the time it’s over he’s well on his way to being something else. He’s still not a man, exactly, but he’s become kind of a Byronic hero. He’s comfortable in his authority to brood.
Regardless of gender, the feeling of falling in love is the same. It’s only once you start to enter the codes of how we’re taught to behave that the experiences of men and women become different, and the dissonance between watching Cosmo experience relatable emotions while being socialized completely differently about how to respond to those emotions was overwhelming in a way that I didn’t anticipate. Would a girl be allowed to fail as much as Cosmo did? Would a girl’s community encourage her spectacular self-image the way Cosmo's did? Of course, the rules for behavior become more lenient as we grow into adults, but Sing Street wants to explore how musicians get their start, which necessarily means diving into the more rigid world of adolescence.
I liked that Cosmo was taunted at school with gay accusations, and I liked that Sing Street understands those taunts as an attempt to hold on to control and power. I liked that Raphina is a character who keeps high standards for herself, because that’s what you have to do if you have limited options and you want to escape from your hometown. I liked that in every one of the mothers we see, there’s a hint that she was once a Raphina. I liked that the story acknowledged that Cosmo's innocence was the result of his brother’s effort to keep him innocent. Cosmo doesn’t exist in this movie as an exception — instead, he is the product of his environment, his exceptionalism of a recognized sort. He’s the one the community has chosen to defy the rules of the community.
In Hollywood, there has been a lot of talk over the last few years about why there aren’t more female filmmakers, why there aren’t more female writers. Fortunately, there are more women making bands and more women writing books, but even then, the numbers of boys who feel comfortable putting their feelings and their experiences out into the world outnumbers girls by a wide margin. In trying to address these problems, people usually talk about financial incentives and hiring practices, but that’s only addressing the inequality that arises once you get a woman through the door. The problem of gender inequality in the arts becomes a lot trickier to solve if you consider the possibility that the role we play in our communities is just as much a deterrent to making art as money is.
What are the effects of teaching boys but not girls to be the active partner in a relationship? Is there space in our culture for girls to picture themselves as a romantic hero? How can you make art if you’re the only one who can picture yourself at the center of your vision? Will your art be limited if your access to role models is limited too?
Sing Street asks every one of those questions on its way to finding a happy ending for Cosmo, and it doesn't try to lie about the answers. It takes a village to raise a child. But it takes the cumulative effect of every village that has ever existed to raise an artist.