by: Jay Carlson – Editor-in-chief
It’s not often that a film comes out of nowhere and surprises me, typically I walk in knowing too much about a film, but I was genuinely surprised by Sing Street. I walked into the film having never seen a trailer or even read a plot synopsis. I went in completely pure, which never happens. It just wasn’t on my radar in any way. I hadn’t even planned to see the film until I was contacted to see if I’d like to speak to John Carney for an interview. I knew John Carney as the director of Once, a film that I had fallen head over heels in love with upon it’s initial release, but I didn’t realize he had a new film coming out so soon.
Sing Street takes place in 1980s Dublin seen through the eyes of a 14-year-old boy named Conor (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo) who is looking for a break from a home strained by his parents’ relationship and money troubles, while trying to adjust to his new inner-city public school where the kids are rough and the teachers are rougher. He finds a glimmer of hope in the mysterious, über-cool and beautiful Raphina (Lucy Boynton), and with the aim of winning her heart he invites her to star in his band’s music videos. There’s only one problem: he’s not part of a band…yet. She agrees, and now Conor must deliver what he’s promised – calling himself “Cosmo” and immersing himself in the vibrant rock music trends of the decade, he forms a band with a few lads, and the group pours their heart into writing lyrics and shooting videos. Inspired by writer/director John Carney’s life and love for music, Sing Street shows us a world where music has the power to take us away from the turmoil of everyday life and transform us into something greater.
Sing Street stands proudly alongside Once, Carney’s other film set in Ireland. It’s rare that I sit in a theater with a big dumb smile across my face for two hours, but this is that kind of rare film. Carney caught lightening in the bottle with Once and miraculously he’s managed to do it a second time. Get out there this weekend and see it and I promise you’ll be running out to pick up the soundtrack immediately after.
I’ll be giving the film a proper review separately, but until then read on for my interview with two of the stars, Ferdia Walsh-Peelo and Mark McKenna. A couple of highlights to our talk include me floating my theory that Glen Hansard’s character in Once is actually the same character from this film and asking if Carney intentionally made them resemble Paul McCartney and John Lennon. They are an interesting couple guys who I could have chatted with for far longer than our allotted time. Also, at the bottom of the article you’ll find a video of the two performing after the Boston screening, special thanks to Boston Independent Film Festival for the footage.
Indie Revolver: You guys go through a lot of different looks as your sound evolves throughout the film. Which was your favorite and which was your least favorite?
Ferdia Walsh-Peelo: There’s so many. It’s hard to pick. I liked all the ones where I was looking kind of cool but I loved all the scenes with the band looking terrible, like in Riddle of the Model or when Conor comes in with his blond bits of hair. Those were so funny. In terms of cool looks, I love the look at the end when I’m signing Girls, the kind of Angus Young look and the dress. I liked that. I thought that was kind of cool.
IR: Mark, what was your favorite and least favorite look of the film?
Mark McKenna: My favorite look would have to be the blue velvet suit. My least favorite look would have to be the blue velvet suit. (laughter). Eamon goes through a lot of ridiculous looks. It’s not even experimental, my just has poor taste.
FWP: The double denim was awesome.
MM: The double denim was awesome.
FWP: The most important piece of Eamon’s fashion was the rabbit.
IR: Was the strange rabbit fascination your bit that you brought to the role?
MM: No, no that was in the script.
IR: Most films have a pretty straightforward audition process. Was the process for Sing Steet different due to the fact that they needed to also assemble musicians for a band as well as actors for the performances? Were they looking for musicians over actors?
FWP: I was a musician who didn’t act (laughs). I was just a musician when I walked into that audition and I came out an actor. John (Carney) cast me in that film and I’d never acted before. I’d done a few stage things, I was a boy soprano when I was younger, so I did a few operas. I was so driven with music I never had time to think about anything else. Then I got Sing Street and I started really adding to the whole acting thing.
MM: Professionally, I was neither. (laughter) I was more a musician but when I was sixteen, no seventeen, my friend convinced me to go to this drama class with him. After that, I thought maybe I would try acting. About a year later, I ended up going to the Sing Street audition and ended up getting it. When I was younger I decided I wanted to make my life about music and do nothing else but then I got the one thing that could be considered music’s husband or wife.
FWP: They both go hand in hand. We both landed the most perfect roles we could have possibly landed. It was just like the most awesome thing ever.
IR: Was John auditioning people together to see how they worked or played music together?
FWP: He auditioned Karl (Rice, who played Garry) and Conor (Hamilton, who played Larry) together. He showed me that audition tape just after they auditioned. Karl Rice plays Garry with the bass.
MM: I’m not sure if it’s clear but the drummer and the bassist are supposed to be brothers.
FWP: They’re brothers. And the drummer is Conor Hamilton. They were auditioned together because they were supposed to play off of each other in the original script. But obviously the film changes so much. (Pointing to Mark) I think our chemistry must have been good because John ended up putting so many more scenes with me and Mark. The original relationship was between Conor and Darren (The red haired Ben Carolan) rather than Conor and Eamon. That relationship kind of developed through editing and then we did reshoots and added on a few scenes. The key scene where we’re sitting in Phoenix Park and a few writing scenes in the bedroom were part of reshoots. I think John played it by ear as the film was going on. He’s great about making it up as he goes along.
MM: He’ll see something during filming and his mind just goes off and he’s like, “I must change this.”
IR: When the film opens and we see Conor for the first time I thought, he looks a lot like a young Paul McCartney and then a little while later it struck me that Eamon resembled young John Lennon. Was this at all intentional or am I just projecting? The dynamic between the two characters lends itself to my theory as well.
FWP: That is something I see as well. I also see Bono and The Edge as well. But that relationship is the first one that develops in bands, I think. That’s where it all kicks off, between the two. And with Lennon and McCartney… There was a bit of that. I don’t think John intentionally did that at that start. But thanks for saying I look like Paul McCartney.
IR: John has previously said the film is semi-autobiographical about his time attending the real Synge Street. Is there any pressure playing the part knowing that you are playing the person who is directing you? Were you even aware of it while you were filming?
FWP: I wasn’t really aware of it at the time. Well, I wasn’t aware if it at all at the time. Pressure keeps coming up and I can see why when you see the film and hear the stories. “Boy that must have been a lot of pressure on the guys.” But there’s been no pressure throughout this whole film. It’s just been a fun experience. We didn’t even feel it being on set. The first day for me was in the kitchen with Maria Doyle Kennedy and Aidan Gillen and Jack Reynor and Kelly Thornton and I was a little bit overwhelmed. Still it was just really enjoyable. I didn’t quite realize the pressure on me because I don’t think I realized the scale of the film. It just never came up on set, the autobiographical thing.
MM: Eamon is a real person. There was never a “This is what Eamon used to do,” or “Eamon was like this when he was younger.” John just told me a few funny stories about Eamon. He never said to me, “This is how Eamon would act, this is how Eamon would do that.” I would just go on set and be a teenager.
FWP: Now that I think back on it, there was that relationship between the brothers that means a lot to John. But it was also a very personal thing for me, as well. I have two older brothers who I’m really close to as well and who are also doing music full time. There’s that kind of relationship. So, I suppose it’s done now. At the time there wasn’t any pressure, now it’s just done.
MM: By the time you realize there is pressure, it’s all done.
FWP: Yeah, yeah.
IR: Considering the time period and the fact that you’re both very young, did John give you stuff to get into the mindset of being a teen coming of age in this time period?
FWP: He gave us lots of music videos. I think music videos kind of sum up the 80’s.
MM: There’s kind of this thing in the 80’s, the early 80’s at least, where the music videos for most songs are just the band on stage performing. Then later on, the artistic videos or whatever you want to call them… A lot of all the Queen videos like Loverboy that came out in the late 70’s or early 80’s… The video for that was just them on stage performing.
FWP: It’s really interesting. He was throwing loads of stuff at us. There was The Politics of Dancing by Re-Flex, which is quite a funny on to look at. There’s just so many videos from that era that look homemade, you know? There’s loads of great ones, as well. There are loads of madness. Our House is brilliant. I love that music video. There’s Hall and Oates, they have loads of good ones as well.
IR: So music and videos, did John give you any movies to watch?
FWP: I watched a few things. I watched loads of stuff about troubled kids and stuff about kids trying to rebel. I think that was our early stages and then the whole thing kind of changed. Originally the script was a little more hard core and a bit rougher and little bit like Begin Again or Once. A bit more grown up and kids dealing with grown up issues. It sort of still is that but it’s more family and more fun.
MM: I’ve always been a massive fan of John Hughes films. I love the soundtrack to those film. One day when we were on set, John was like, “Just think of this like a John Hughes film.” I was like, “Yessss.” I love those films.
IR: As musicians how did this film and all the music John exposed you to affect you?
FWP: All good. Obviously the more music you discover the better. I’m just thinking songwriting, the more types of music you play, the better that becomes. You have a bit wider range and you learn from it all. I don’t know what would have happened if I didn’t get Sing Street. I assume I would have discovered the 80’s, just maybe a bit later. I might have gone through a few others phases first.
IR: Was there anything you guys encountered during filming from that time period that you didn’t understand?
FWP: There were loads of phrases. I don’t know if they’re still in the film.
MM: There’s one phrase. “Check it,” was used a lot. It wasn’t something we didn’t understand, it was more like we couldn’t believe they used to say it. Especially 15 year old white boys in the Christian school. (laughter) There’s one scene where, the audio was too ridiculous, where we all walk into school and we all have the blazers on, and Ferdia is walking off and Ngig walks up and I put my fist up and John tells me to say “Check it” or “Word out.” So I say “Word out” and the audio just got taken out. (Laughter)
IR: I was hoping the film would continue on so we could have seen how Hip Hop would have influenced Conor and Sing Street’s look and sound.
John (Carney) was originally supposed to be here and I really wanted to float my crazy half serious theory to John about how I think there’s a case to be made that Sing Street is a prequel to Once and that Conor is actually Glen Hansard’s unnamed character as a kid. Glen’s character in Once has a girlfriend in London and the timelines would kind of jive.
FWP: There’s loads of weird things and I don’t know if John did those intentionally… I think he might have because there’s loads of funny things like that that I think might be in the back of John’s mind. I don’t know if he…
MM: It’s going to turn out to be like a Quentin Tarantino-esque kind of world with all his films. Begin Again can be him when he turns out to be a washed up musician turned producer.
IR: When you see him next you should pitch my theory to him since he’s not here.
FWP: You know, sometimes we talk like, what if that end sequence is all in Conor’s head and Raphina doesn’t turn up at the gig?
MM: I don’t know if you noticed this but there’s a bit of symbolism at the end.
IR: How so?
FWP: Are talking about how Raphina and Conor follow the boat?
MM: Yeah, yeah. The ferry is like the big brother after his own big brother lets him go off.
IR: I haven’t been able to get these songs out of my head since I saw the film. Is there a possibility for a Sing Street tour?
MM: We hope so.
FWP: It’s all up to Mark. No, it’s not. We’re not trying to push anything. We’re just going to go with the flow. Mark and I are playing away and doing it for the fun of it because we love it and it’s really good to have a press tour for the film and to play music at the same time. That’s one of my favorite parts, when we get up and play songs afterwards.
MM: Especially when it goes well. We had one performance where the mics just weren’t working. You couldn’t hear certain things and after we were like, that’s just terrible.
FWP: I think we should do some stuff. It just depends how things play out. Even if we just play a few gigs for the crack. It’s funny, because we have a fan base all of a sudden with the film (laughs). I don’t think we’d make it a big Sing Street thing. It would just be me and Mark.
IR: Were you guys a part of the songwriting process or were the songs fully realized when you came in?
MM: They wrote them before we were cast.
FWP: Well, they some of them before we were cast. It’s funny because Gary Clark was writing bits of the songs in the studio as we were recording them, but I didn’t get involved. I don’t know what would have happened if we had been in charge of songwriting for the film. It would have been an absolute flub. We had Gary Clark doing it who was Danny Wilson, who had a number one hit in the 80’s. So we had the most perfect guy writing music for the film.
IR: So what’s next for you guys?
FWP: I mean we’re just taking it easy. Aren’t we, Mark? We’re so busy with Sing Street that we don’t even have time to think about that.
IR: Thanks guys.