After a great reception at this year’s Sundance, John Carney’s latest film Sing Street sees the writer-director’s audience potentially the largest it’s ever been. Of course, even the most seasoned of cineastes don’t care too much about Carney the writer or even Carney the director; though perfectly adept at both jobs by this point, the man’s unique talent, ultimately, is in his musical commissions.
Usually when we talk about “commissions” it’s in terms of business transactions – a rich guy needs a piece of art for his living room or a birthday song for his Shetland pony, so he has a commission done. It sounds strange to use the word in the context of a film director needing music. Doesn’t Steven Spielberg just, like, ask John Williams whenever he needs a score? And at most, the likes of Quentin Tarantino and John Hughes are more like curators than resurrected Medicis. “Commission”?
Yet this is exactly what Carney has done in his two most well-known and decorated films, Once (2007) and Begin Again (2014): commission. For the former, Carney asked his old bandmate Glen Hansard to write some songs for a proposed busking drama while the latter – written in the wake of Once‘s success – was initially handled by Gregg Alexander, another friend of the director’s. In both instances, a script was drafted before being sent to the musicians to fill in the musical gaps. This is a functionally different approach to the usual film-soundtracking processes: instrumental scores are generally composed during actual production and added afterwards (after all, the music won’t affect things like scripting or visual design). Musicals, with their prewritten songs and specifically-timed instrumental pieces, will be structured in tandem with the songwriting and will have their dialogue and action written second. Even those jukebox pop soundtracks we love so much can have their cues picked at any point from pre- to post-production, a single film often dressed with tunes at any and every stage.
Carney’s process across this loose trilogy of struggling-musician films is therefore a genuinely remarkable one. It is completely collaborative, fresh, and spontaneous: much like the pop-up style of his films. There may be a blatant difference in style between the beautifully scuzzy, lo-fi digital video of Once and the bright Park Slope sheen of Begin Again, but both films are equally and similarly celebratory of the beauty of artistic process. In fact, it is exactly this difference – one film a bittersweet social-realist tale, the other an absurdly perky and unrealistic fairytale – that injects Carney’s recurrent theme with such potency. In both works, the nature of the presentation (cinematically speaking) not only reflects but constructs the very message.
There is something brilliant about the way Carney has meshed the musical genre with both the visual language of the classical drama and the aesthetics of the low-budget indie, all in the name of constructing said message. One of Once‘s finest scenes (and there are several contenders, depending on your taste) is set in a music store: the unnamed ‘Guy’ (Glen Hansard), a busking guitarist, has found out his new acquaintance, Markéta Irglová’s ‘Girl’, plays piano, and so teaches her some notes so she can accompany him. The two, who wrote all the songs in real life, perform what has become Once‘s signature song, ‘Falling Slowly’. Here’s where the three styles – the musical, the classical drama, and the indie – coalesce:
Obviously, they’re playing a song. In a film. And this is neither the first nor the last song in the film. So this is a musical. Right? Sort of. Here, we are literally only given the guitar, the piano and the two voices, each sound-source clearly visible onscreen. There isn’t a subtle accompaniment from somewhere in the ether, or even any obvious ADR or dubbing; it is kept completely vérité. Even the performance space is flattened – the characters just sit there, playing their song, and getting into it to varying degrees, a style that repeats itself throughout the film. Later, during the recording-studio performance of ‘When Your Mind’s Made Up’, Carney decides to bring Irglová onto his “dancefloor” by just panning the camera over to include her in his shot – well, she can’t very well do it herself, being sat at a piano and all. The same logic holds here: to make it visually interesting, to show us that there is some connection being made through this song, that this sort of thing can survive without Busby Berkeley-style kinetic japery, Carney simply moves his camera around a bit. That’s it. We push in, we push out, we cut from one two-shot to another. Towards the end of the song, we even get a slow pull-back, simulating similar motions from much bigger musical spectaculars – except in this case, we get about as far as the shop till.
But the best of Carney’s little innovations is how he substitutes the bodily movements and dramaturgical wig-outs of the musical with a pseudo-classical cinematographic system consisting of looks and glances. That’s what makes ‘Falling Slowly’ so effective – almost all the ‘action’, as we know it, is Hansard looking at Irglová, trying to gauge her reaction. Stylistically, it’s more like a dialogue scene than anything else. Quite apart from anything else (did someone say “simmering romantic tensions”?), this foregrounds the broadest theme of Carney’s musical outings: that the music counts above all else. The romantic tensions actually start to develop as Once continues; at this point, all the guy wants is to know that he has a good thing. That his music works. That it all clicks.
The same thing holds across Begin Again, but in a much more polished manner. Each song is presented as live, with a little bit of hip-jiggling but ultimately no choreography or composition more sophisticated than people exchanging looks. ‘Tell Me If You Wanna Go Home’, for instance, slowly constructs the simple, short story of Hailee Steinfeld’s character Violet finding both her own selfhood and the base for a meaningful relationship with her deadbeat father – and it does so simply through people standing around playing instruments, looking at each other, and ultimately dancing a little. The lyrics don’t even correspond directly to the onscreen action, which is, quietly, one of the more severe transgressions against the rules of the musical genre.
More profound is Carney’s use of montage, which links the songs written by Keira Knightley’s character Gretta with little bits of action that help advance the story. This occurs throughout Begin Again, and again in a slightly more cleaned-up form than similar instances in Once. In both films, having presented to us the notion that the music is the characters’ number-one priority (be they buskers, songwriters or Mark Ruffalo’s struggling producer), Carney then demonstrates this on a more cosmic scale: the songs in question end up reaching out across time and space, naturally underscoring the action without becoming overwrought or literalised. In these films we read (or hear) such sequences as somewhere between the stock montage and the stock Musical sequence: look no further than Irglová’s performance of ‘If You Want Me’, ambling down the street with her Walkman, quietly singing her own lyrics in a long tracking shot that’s at once the film’s most dreamlike and its most straightforwardly prosaic.
Ultimately, all this musical fiddling comes together at the end of Begin Again, with Adam Levine’s climactic performance of the by-this-point familiar motif song, ‘Lost Stars’. Firstly: it’s a proper classic musical decision to actually give the closing number to the cast’s only real singer (imagine for instance if Funny Girl‘s showstopping ‘My Man’ had been sung by near tone-deaf costar Omar Sharif). Secondly, the use of eyeline matches and other judicious cuts to generate story in place of either dance choreography or narrational lyrics is Carney’s most sophisticated moment to date.
Levine’s character Dave premieres the song – written some time ago by Gretta – to a packed crowd at the Gramercy. Gretta, invited along, watches from offstage. Having established this fact in long shot, Carney cuts to her rough POV, viewing Dave in mid-long shot side-on. He begins to play the song; for the first time all movie, he doesn’t start looking to her. This is important – every other song sequence in this film is built around who’s looking at who. In this case, he’s playing the song out to the crowd, of whom we get a couple of shots. Not that you notice this absence-of-glances until Dave finally looks round at Gretta, turning slightly with a pleased grin – she, we are shown, is actually enjoying it. He winks at her. He turns back to the crowd, confidence now boosted, really getting into it. That’s when Carney chops things up a little. Changing from long-held shots of Levine playing his song, we start getting more cuts back to Gretta, the camera pushing in a little more each time as various emotions play on her face. The song begins to climax: we see a closeup on Gretta; a closeup on some crowd members; a closeup on her. Cut to her cycling off; cut back to another closeup, this time on Dave, noticing her absence.
The remaining minute or so of the film then really plays with temporality. Carney has shown us that this key song, written by Gretta, performed several times in draft form and now premiered – with all the bells and whistles – by Dave, has essentially flown out into the world and completed its gestation period. So now, the climax of the song playing us out, he cuts between Dave not singing (a classic music video technique; not so much the musical genre), Gretta biking away in increasingly tight facial shots, and Ruffalo reuniting with his estranged wife – all with the impossible chronology of a proper musical, the low-key look of an indie effort and the pure, cleaned-up narrative simplicity of a familiar classic. And the one thing linking all these disparate things is the song – the one commissioned by the director to play him out.
This is the real sophistication of John Carney’s directing vocabulary: the music never replaces dialogue, or binds the action, like a traditional musical. Yet his visual choices complement his musicians’ aural choices in the same sort of way, bringing these songs-as-written into a broader, encompassing universe of emotions and experiences. His films bring the heightened feelings of the musical genre into something almost social realist: Once sticks to this with grimy charm while Begin Again aims for a more polished romantic worldview. And both are so potent because they really do pride the music above all else, both in form and in storytelling. At the end of Once, the Guy leaves while the Girl remains with her reunited family – but their songs remain, recorded forever. As Begin Again wraps up, Gretta rides into a completely unknown future, a likely hit ringing in her ears from the Gramercy. We cut to black. The song lingers.