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From 'Once' To 'Sing Street': Director John Carney Infuses Movies With Music


This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross. Music often plays a part in the work of our next guest, Irish film director John Carney. His 2007 independent film "Once," about two struggling musicians in Dublin, was a surprise hit, winning an Oscar for best song and inspiring a Tony Award-winning Broadway musical.

Carney's new film, "Sing Street," loosely based on his own life, is about a young teenager in Dublin in the '80s who discovers pop music and starts a band. The main character, Connor, is having a difficult time. His parents are constantly fighting and possibly splitting up. Because of their financial troubles, Connor is forced to change schools. In the new school, he's bullied by other boys and by the Catholic brothers who run it. One day, he spots a girl and to impress her, tells her he's in a band. He isn't but quickly puts one together.

Producer Ann Marie Baldonado spoke to John Carney and they started with a clip. Connor's band has made a cassette recording and he's playing it for his older brother, Brendan, who's been schooling him on '80s pop music. Brendan doesn't like what he hears and is aggravated that it's a cover and not an original song and he starts pulling the cassette apart. Connor is played by Ferdia Walsh-Peelo and his brother Brendan is played by Jack Reynor.


JACK REYNOR: (As Brendan) That was bad, bad music. And there is nothing as bad in this world as bad music.

FERDIA WALSH-PEELO: (As Connor) You know you can record over tapes?

REYNOR: (As Brendan) No. That was a novelty act. You want to have actual sexual intercourse right?

WALSH-PEELO: (As Connor) Yeah - wait, what?

REYNOR: (As Brendan) The girl. It's all about the girl, isn't it?

WALSH-PEELO: (As Connor) Yeah, the girl, yeah.

REYNOR: (As Brendan) And you're going to use somebody else's art to get her - are you kidding?

WALSH-PEELO: (As Connor) We're just starting. We need to learn how to play.

REYNOR: (As Brendan) Did The Sex Pistols know how to play? You don't need to know how to play. Who are you, Steely Dan? You need to learn how to not play, Connor. That's the trick, that's rock 'n' roll. And that takes practice. And you're not a covers band, by the way.

WALSH-PEELO: (As Connor) Really?

REYNOR: (As Brendan) No. Every school has a covers band. Every pub has a covers band. Every wedding has a covers band. And every covers band has a middle-aged member who'll never know whether they could've made it in the music industry or not because they never had that the [expletive] to write a song for someone else. Rock 'n' roll is a risk. You risk being ridiculed.

WALSH-PEELO: (As Connor) But I don't know how to write a song.

REYNOR: (As Brendan) Close that door and sit down.

WALSH-PEELO: (As Connor) Really?

REYNOR: (As Brendan) It's going to be a long night.

WALSH-PEELO: (As Connor) I have school in the morning.

REYNOR: (As Brendan) This is school.


JOHN CARNEY: Nice to be here.

BALDONADO: Can you describe what Dublin was like in the '80s, in the time that your movie takes place?

CARNEY: I felt that the '80s were the '60s in Dublin in a sense, if you know what I mean. Ireland didn't really have the '60s, the sexual liberation and the - you know, that the rest of the world had - or certain parts of the world. And so it came sort of 20 years later.

So the '80s felt as a young kid that there was something going on, you know, a feeling that the, sort of, the church were finally sort of losing their grip. People were beginning to experiment with sexual identity. They were beginning to experiment more outrageously with clothes.

And I think I was in school right in the middle of that period. And it was a very interesting place to be 'cause it really felt like a very backward place and it felt like it was just beginning to sort of change and come into its own.

BALDONADO: Well, speaking of the Catholic Church's influence, the parents in the story - Connor's parents - are kind of in the process of ending their marriage. They wish they could divorce but historically, I guess, at this time period divorce wasn't legal in Ireland, in the 1980s, is that right?

CARNEY: Correct.

BALDONADO: Yeah, so people who wanted to get divorced still had to stay together and that's sort of a tension in Connor's household.

CARNEY: I think that was the case in so many households, actually. I mean, firstly the church wouldn't have permitted it. It was very, very rare that you would know of a street with a particular house that was like, oh, that's the couple who split up because everybody else stuck together. And it was part of what you said and believed when you got married, but also it was supervised by the church and state.

And it was also - there was another factor in all of this, which was money. Nobody had any cash. You couldn't afford to have two cars or two lives or two flats or two houses. You stayed together because it's cheaper to run a family, right? It's cheaper to run one family under one roof than it is to run two.

BALDONADO: Yeah, there is a scene at the very beginning of the film where Connor, the main character, is in his room writing a song, just fooling around on his guitar and his parents are fighting outside and he starts sort of incorporating the argument that they're having, like, if we didn't share mortgage I would leave you.

And then he turns that into a lyric for the song and it's kind of, like, you get the sense that the character is kind of processing what's happening through the music but kind of escaping through the music as well.

CARNEY: Yeah, right, exactly, it's kind of like standup or something.

BALDONADO: So the band that the group of kids start is called Sing Street and they go to a school called Sing Street and I think you shot there, is that right?

CARNEY: Correct.

BALDONADO: So you shot in the school that you went to when you were in high school. What was that like, shooting back there?

CARNEY: It was like a prisoner coming back to Alcatraz now that it's a sort of a tourist spot. School to me was like a prison. I didn't want to go and I was a fish out of water. I wasn't a good student. So it felt very much like restraint.

And so coming back as an adult and also kind of particularly as a film director - you know, film director is, you know, it's a very hierarchical kind of thing and you're at the top of the tree and, you know, you kind of have a megaphone and jodhpurs and a whip. And you're the boss in a sense. So it was kind of funny being back in a position of complete authority from one of completely subservient student life, you know, 30 years earlier.

BALDONADO: Now, the original songs in "Sing Street" are just wonderful and in many of your films you work with collaborators on the music. Could you give us an example from one of the songs where you and Gary Clark - and let me just say that Gary Clark was in the band Danny Wilson, which maybe in the U.S. their biggest hit was "Mary's Prayer" in the '80s, just to give a little background...


BALDONADO: ...Can you describe how the two of you came up with any song in particular and if you could sort of point to the elements - the '80s elements - that you wanted to make sure that were in that song?

CARNEY: My songs are the songs that I had sort of half-written. He kind of pushed incredible choruses on them or great hooks, lyrically. I can give you a good example. There's a song in the film, which is one of the first songs Connor writes, and it's called "The Riddle Of The Model" and the film is about a guy who sees a girl who claims she's a model, this young kid who's sort of a 16-year-old. So I wrote that name, "The Riddle Of The Model." I thought it was very pretentious and very sort of appropriate for a young kid in the '80s. And he started adding in words like, you know, she's so indefinable, she holds the key to the missing code.

And we started to form this song, which was sort of, like, it's hard to describe. But there was a kind of like an art college movement in the sort of late '70s, early '80s in England of sort of I'm too good for pop music. I'm kind of an artist and I'm an intellectual but oh God, here we go. I have to be in a band. And to imagine being sort of 18 and you're still little bit spotty, you've got a little bit of acne but it's, like, 1981 and you've learned some big words from reading Albert Camus and you're now writing a song.

We just - we started from there and we put words like stipulation and we tried to put lots of long words and cram them into sort of poppy sort of choruses and key changes and stuff. And we just had a blast. And it was very good fun trying to actually write from that perspective. But also to try to keep it catchy and fun and try and keep the song sort of - to have a sort of - a kind of an '80s feel to it.

BALDONADO: Well, why don't we take a listen to the song "The Riddle Of The Model" from the movie "Sing Street." It can also be found on the soundtrack.


UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (As character, singing) She's standing on the corner like an angel in disguise. And as I little closer she's got dangerous eyes. She tells me she's a model of international reputation, she's lightning in a bottle but there's a stipulation. She's so indecipherable. She holds the key to the missing code. Just the thought of her touch my mind explodes. So desirable, time never will unfold. Oh, oh, oh, the riddle of the model.

BALDONADO: That was "The Riddle Of The Model" from the movie and soundtrack "Sing Street." Now, videos were very important to the character, Connor. And of course the '80s was sort of the birth of MTV and other kinds of music television.

And there's this great scene where the main family is watching a Duran Duran video and, you know, Dad's saying, oh, this is rubbish. And the kids are sort of focusing on the video. Do you remember the first video you saw and did it make an impact on you?

CARNEY: I mean, I certainly remember the moment around the sort of TV when "Top Of The Pops" would come on on a Thursday evening where my entire family and my grandmother included - you know, who was born in 1913, you know, and I was born in 1972 - and we'd kind of sit around looking at the TV like we were sort of looking at fire. And in a sense it was like sitting around the fireplace of an Irish country cottage, all gathered looking into the fire.

This thing suddenly came on air and in it, the traditional idea of a music show where you would get a live band or a band miming to playback in an audience - or, you know, on a stage with an audience - was gone because bands were touring around the world. And somebody came up with this great idea of let's shoot, like, a video, which represents the band and we can just replay that whenever we want, which is a great marketing idea.

But for the first 10 years of that, just nobody knew what they were doing. And they had a lot of money and a lot of cocaine and they were making videos around the world in these exotic locations. And there was this great sense that, like, aliens had taken control of the TV and were, like, beaming in this stuff, these little escapist three-minute sort of films.

BALDONADO: Do you think videos were important to you becoming interested in filmmaking? I notice that Connor's character, even - for the first video he has storyboards, you know, those illustrations that show each shot - that he wants to get for the video. Did you make videos for your bands?

CARNEY: I did make videos for bands, but I think kind of the opposite in a way. It was very much - I looked at videos just as a means of representing the music, not as a film in and of itself, not really anything to do with filmmaking. So when I moved from music into filmmaking, it was because I wanted to be friends with Truffaut or, you know, Martin Scorsese or whatever.

DAVIES: John Carney speaking with Ann Marie Baldonado. We'll hear more after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. We're listening to FRESH AIR producer Ann Marie Baldonado's interview with Irish filmmaker John Carney. His new movie is called "Sing Street." Before he got into filmmaking, Carney was a musician.

BALDONADO: Was there a time for you when you felt like you had to choose between music and filmmaking?


BALDONADO: You know, you obviously use filmmaking as a way to examine music and the process of making music. But did you sort of have to consciously make a decision...


BALDONADO: ...To give it up?

CARNEY: I did and I remember the location of it, and I remember the feeling of it, and I remember my age. I was 20, and I was sitting on a bed in the Columbia Hotel, which is a very famous rock 'n' roll hotel in London. And I was in a band and we had a record deal. And I had a - you know, I had a per diem. I had money in my pocket. And I was - you know, really as a young musician in school I had arrived. This was sort of perfect.

We were touring in England and I just was - had this incredible feeling of dissatisfaction. And I had bought a Super 8 camera and I was starting to shoot silent movie footage, and I had a camcorder back in Dublin, and we were doing sort of slasher videos and comedy sketches.

And I remember being faced with this sort of decision that if I go with this band any further it's going to be harder each year or month to turn back and do a new - you know, reinvent myself or have a new career in filmmaking, which was really calling at me. And I remember quite distinctly sort of being faced with the decision of do I leave this band, and there's money in this band.

And it's kind of what I always wanted - as a kid coming up - was to be in a band. That was sort of the dream. But at the time, actually, it was quite interesting. It was a no-brainer. The hard decision was only, oh, I'm going to be broke again.

BALDONADO: I want to ask a question about your 2007 movie "Once." It's a critically acclaimed film and even became a Broadway show. And I always wonder, did you expect that this movie that you made, I think, for around 100,000 pounds would become this huge thing, this you know...

CARNEY: Yes, of course, I planned it exactly the way it went...

BALDONADO: Yes, you totally knew it'd be a Broadway show, a Tony-winning...

CARNEY: ...As you do.

BALDONADO: What was your reaction to all that?

CARNEY: It was funny. Last night, I met a very nice man called Paul Haggis at the screening of the film "Sing Street" and we were talking about that idea of, like, well, what's your obituary going to say? What will you always be associated with? And I was laughing at the "Once" thing, which is, like, I think I could make anything.

My opening line is always going to be, oh, he's the guy who did that "Once" thing. And Paul Haggis laughed. For him, it's "Crash." It's always, oh, you're the guy who did "Crash," and owning up to that and realizing, OK, I've made a film that meant a lot to a bunch of people at a certain time. That's a wonderful thing and you should never underestimate that. And you should never question it and if that's the thing that you're remembered for, God blessed. And that's fantastic.

And I really do believe that and I'm aware that "Once" is going to be that thing. I mean, that film - everything that was happening to the story of "Once" was just an incredibly funny, wonderful, page-turning episode in its story. We went to Sundance. Getting into Sundance to me as an Irish independent filmmaker was like winning the Booker - it was just like I couldn't believe it.

And then we won an award there and then we went and we won an Independent Spirit Award and people liked the film. And the soundtrack got a deal. And Glen's career went on to just do beautiful things and Marketa and everything seemed beautiful. I won an Academy Award.

All this crazy stuff just kept unfolding in the story of that film. And then these guys were like we want to turn it into a Broadway show and I was like, OK, fine, you know, as if anything else good could happen to this little film.

BALDONADO: I'd love to close with one of the original songs from "Sing Street." Would you like to pick one, a song that was written by the band in the film and performed by the band?

CARNEY: Yeah. I think "A Beautiful Sea" is a nice song to end. That's the one where they become Cure heads. You know, people who know The Cure and maybe even don't know The Cure will instantly recognize the comparisons to "In Between Days," which is one of my favorite Cure songs.

So there's a sort of an uplift in this song, a sort of an acoustic guitar-led (ph) sort of optimism and speed about its playing, which I really sort of enjoy. And it is - it gives the film a great sort of sense of forward motion and sort of uplift that I really like. That'd be a nice way to end on.

BALDONADO: John Carney, thank you so much.

CARNEY: Thank you.

DAVIES: John Carney's new film is "Sing Street." He spoke with producer Ann Marie Baldonado.


UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (As character, singing) Fake deals in the supermarket. Tvs selling what you can't get. She laughs, nowhere is as pretty as this. Green cars crawling in slow lane, lost stars waiting for the dark train. She smiles, turns and blows the city the kiss. Under the waves I feel her pull my body down. Under the waves she takes me where I want to drown. Ah, give me miles away, she calls to me. This girl is a beautiful Sea.

DAVIES: On tomorrow's show, China scholar Frank Dikotter says newly opened archives document the chaos of the cultural revolution of the '60s when Chairman Mao urged students to take to the streets.

FRANK DIKOTTER: You see teachers who have their hair torn out, pummeled by red guards or people being caned literally to death.

DAVIES: Dikotter says the years of violence destroyed the credibility of the Communist Party and led to economic changes in the country. His book is "The Cultural Revolution: A People's History." I hope you can join us. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ann Marie Baldonado is an interview contributor and long-time producer at Fresh Air with Terry Gross. She is currently Fresh Air's Director of Talent Development. She got her start in radio in 1997 as a production assistant at WHYY and joined Fresh Air in 1998. For over 20 years, she has focused on the show's TV and film interviews. She became a contributing interviewer in 2015, talking with comedians, actors, directors and musicians like Ali Wong, Kumail Nanjiani, John Cho and Jeff Tweedy. In 2020, Baldonado hosted the limited-run podcast Parent Trapped, about the struggles of parenting during the pandemic. She talked to Julie Andrews about encouraging creativity in your kids, and comedian W. Kamau Bell about what to watch with them.

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