Can a song save your life? That was the original title of John Carney's Begin Again, but the question encapsulates the entirety of the Irish filmmaker's tender canon. Once, Begin Again, and Sing Street -- these transcendent films explore the creative, collaborative, and at times heartbreaking process of making music, and most poignantly, of finding salvation through song.
No one understands the narrative process of songwriting, and falling in love, quite like Carney.
In the writer-director's latest feature Sing Street, Carney weaves his most effervescent tale yet. Set in Dublin in 1985, the film follows 15-year-old Conor's (newcomer Ferdia Walsh-Peelo) ambitious venture to pull together a ragtag band to try to impress a girl (Lucy Boynton). After all, most musicians get their start writing sweet, bubblegum love songs to classmates they fancy. But Sing Street cuts deeper than teenage romance.
"What people expect when they see this film is a romance between Conor and Raphina, but what they get is a romance between Conor and his music," Walsh-Peelo, who landed the role of Conor after an arduous open casting call in Dublin, told MTV News. "John is really good at depicting that relationship between people and music, and that's the thing I see -- Conor's connection with music. At first he forms a band to get the girl, but it becomes more than that. He finds refuge in it, and for the first time, he feels safe and secure."
Culturally and economically, Ireland during the '80s was a tempestuously destitute place. There was the overwhelming sense that in order to make something of your life you had to get the hell out of Dodge. For that reason young people flocked to London to find themselves; they looked abroad to find places of cultural substance. When Conor first meets 16-year-old Raphina on a stoop outside of his new public school Synge Street, she's destined for bigger and better things as a model in London, or so she says. He falls instantly head over heels in love (as one does at 14) with her beauty and bullet-proof confidence -- but as the film progresses, Conor begins to pull back the layers on the fragile girl hiding behind the heavy makeup and bouncy bouffant.
Boynton, 21, delivers a delicate performance as the wounded object of Conor's affections. "She's just found a way to deal with everything, and that's by keeping people at a certain distance and creating this veneer of confidence to keep them far away," Boynton said. "Conor's the first person who tries to push through that. It makes her vulnerable and insecure to have someone who actually cares enough to challenge that. It's quite unnerving for her."
Conor matures rapidly throughout the film, as his art gives him courage and the means of self-expression. His older brother Brendan (played by scene-stealer Jack Reynor) becomes his musical guru of sorts, lending him records and offering tips on how to impress Raphina. Brendan, who lives at home, has dropped out of college to become a shaggy, bitter stoner -- but he also harbors the film's emotional weight.
When Reynor met with longtime friend Carney to talk about the role, he was given one crucial note: Make it your own. "He really trusted me to do that," Reynor said. "I felt like I had a lot of liberty in what I could do with Brendan. For me, it was important that Brendan wasn't just going to be a really light, poppy stoner character who only influenced Conor in his musical progression. To me, it was important that there was an element where you could see his self-destructiveness and the conflict that can occur between siblings. We worked very hard to find the right balance of that in the film, to not tip it one way or the other too much."
As Connor learns more about Duran Duran, The Cure, ABC and other bands from Brendan, he shifts his musical styles and looks. And whenever anyone asks him what kind of music he plays, he says he's a futurist -- always looking forward, not back. And yet, every high is tinged with sadness; every idyllic, carefree moment forever fleeting.
"Conor, and then later Brendan, are so fueled by their failures and by this sadness," said Boynton. "That is how you reach these lighter points. It's all about Conor finding it for himself because he has to. He's not just given a happy life. He has to go and make it for himself. That's what's so incredible about him coming out and making these music videos. He's creating because he has to. It's the only thing that makes him feel alive."
That lightning-in-a-bottle feeling is the driving force behind Sing Street -- that infinite feeling that you could do anything or be anyone, even a rock star, if you just follow your heart. That feeling that for the first time, you actually have a future. In a bittersweet scene, Brendan tells Conor that he regrets never took the same risks to chase his own dreams when he was younger. It might be too late for Brendan, but he's going to make damn sure it's not too late for Conor.
There's an inherent sadness in coming of age, one that Carney manages to delicately capture with the nuance of someone who still feels the pangs of those halcyon days. It's the kind of happy-sad feeling you get when you listen to Robert Smith sing about shivering like a child on "In Between Days." Carney doesn't shy away from the sadness. He never has. Even the film's final moments are beautifully nebulous, as first love often is.
"There's a lot of uncertainty at the end," Reynor said. "There's a pathetic fallacy in that storm that says this is just the beginning for these two. They're heading into something that will be even more difficult than anything they've encountered this far, but at least they have each other."
Sing Street is currently in theaters.