Written by Noah Jackson
John Carney is one of the more interesting people working in the film industry today. His first picture came in 2007, with ‘Once’, a music-based romantic drama set in Carney’s home country of Ireland. This work later adapted to the Broadway stage, and tours nationally. It was responsible for producing the Best Original Song at the Oscars of that year too. Later, he did a big-budget picture titled ‘Begin Again’ – starring Keira Knightley, Mark Ruffalo and Adam Levine (of Maroon 5 fame) – which garnered mostly positive reactions and again, an Oscar nod for Best Original Song. His latest work, ‘Sing Street’, is back in Ireland and is heavily acclaimed, getting lots of love from the critics as well as the audience. Now, this review is a 3-for-1 deal, because John Carney deserves the audience to see, and most importantly listen to, his films.
We start in 2007, with his first film ‘Once’. The film stars two unknown actors playing unnamed characters. To sum it up, songwriter guy meets immigrant girl on the streets of Ireland, they bond and a mutual love for music sees this bond grow stronger. They decide to record songs, all while the audience observes their love develop and have the tale told through their songwriting. John Carney writes and directs, with a budget of somewhere around 100-200 thousand euros.
‘Once’ is impressive. For what it eventually became on Broadway, and with its restricting budget, Carney makes it work. His tone matches this low-budget style, as does some of his aesthetic choices towards lighting and sound mixing. However, and this goes for all independent films, invest in a tripod. The film has a very home-movie feel, like those old family videos probably locked away in someone’s attic. This style works for some, but not all of this film, and I think it is because of the way the anonymity of the characters is presented. Home-movie, bad lighting, handheld camcorder works for when the audience needs to feel attachment to the characters and only the characters. This works because they are really the saving grace of the technical, movie-making part of the film. But the characters here have no names; they are totally fleshed-out, in-depth and well-written, but there is a seed of detachment planted that makes their plight less hypnotising than others. And that brings in the next major flaw, which is the story. The film is only 86 minutes in total, and the story only really fills about 50 minutes. Lots of filler and uninteresting scenes make up a good chunk of the runtime.
These gripes I have don’t necessarily mean this movie is bad. It’s just probably my least favorite of Carney’s filmography, but he shows his worth from the start as a promising writer/director, especially in the music of this film. It’s rich, melodic, and sounds fresh. Not that “Top 40 garbage” on the radio, and not “indie” songs one has to be stoned to understand. If you enjoy music and romance stories, check it out. (Noah’s rating: 7.0 out of 10).
After ‘Once’, Carney began to get noticed, big time. His next film came out in 2014, and starred big names. To me, this film has the best story out of the three, as it’s layered and has multiple subplots that feel important. Not to mention, this film has fascinating themes, including selling out to fame, corporate vs. independent, and putting sacred bonds of love into the public eye. All of which show beautifully, but my biggest issue comes from Carney’s script. In all of his films, he does something I call “prop acting”, which is when he gets characters into the film that he uses basically either to play an instrument, provide a bed, or just lend money. They aren’t really characters, but they still resemble people in these worlds, so they can’t be props either, but they serve no real purpose in the script. This phenomenon occurs in all three of his movies.
‘Begin Again’ does have one of my favorite songs in a Carney film though, which was the highly acclaimed “Lost Stars”. The soundtrack has two versions, one by Keira Knightley and one by Adam Levine. I personally like Levine’s more, but they are both excellent. This music also has a better production value, which fits into the story arcs, considering Ruffalo plays a producer.
A common gripe many had with this movie, was the performance of Keira Knightley, with many critics saying she was too “sophisticated” to play a New York songwriter slumming it to make ends meet. I don’t really get that, she was passable to the movie’s purpose, which is what pretty much everyone else is in the movie.
‘Begin Again’ is a fine film, worth anyone’s time and money. It’s entertaining and has good music and I don’t really see anyone hating it that much, so if this sounds good, then watch it.(Noah’s rating: 7.0 out of 10).
And now for the meaty part of the review – John Carney’s latest work, ‘Sing Street’, is by far the best of his films. It was only in theatres for three weeks where I live, and I took my mother to see it for Mother’s Day. She loved it, I loved it, everyone in the audience seemed to have a good time. It has my favorite of his soundtracks by far, and more importantly, it has the best direction out of Carney’s films. He runs into the “prop acting” bit again, but at least they get introduced to the audience and they actually have some spot of dialogue throughout. The ‘Sing Street’ plot is pretty basic; according to the poster, which is pretty accurate, it is a story of “boy meets girl, girl is unimpressed, boy starts band”. That is the perfect way to describe this movie.
The film is set in the 1980s and that aspect of the film is done brilliantly. The costumes, hairstyles, the way the characters discover this music that we have all grown so used to and, the newfound obsession with music videos. I love all of the music video scenes, especially the one for the track “Riddle of the Model” where they dress like The Village People. This film is filled with little details like that, which shows that John Carney clearly knows what it is he is trying to do. This film is both a love letter to the 1980s as well as a love letter to his country of Ireland. Not to mention the great child actors on display, which is always very hard to get right, let alone get really good ones. The acting in the movie is serviceable, with no real standouts, but that works in the movie perfectly well, as it doesn’t need to be an acting masterpiece. In this film, Carney really breaks down into the songwriting process that he touched on in his previous works. It makes it more interesting to see the backend of the business that our main character is using just to get a girl.
The movie’s plot – no spoilers of course – has plenty of fascinating subplots in our main character’s story to keep us interested as well as rooting for him throughout the runtime. However, the film falters for me in the ending. It’s not a bad ending, but for what the first two acts were and how great of a movie it was building up to be, the ending felt like a fantastical punch that came out of nowhere.
This movie has lot of people talking about it, and deservedly so. It is a great film, and definitely one of my favourites of 2016 so far. I shouldn’t have to explain why you should go and see it, just do it! Everyone will enjoy this movie.
TL,DR: John Carney is an incredibly gifted songwriter, and his movies reflect that by letting his music guide the audience through the stories he wants to show. All three of his films are worth checking out, especially ‘Sing Street’.