‘Sing Street’ director John Carney seizes his moment

Adam Graham
The Detroit News

John Carney likes to wait until the time is right.

He doesn’t go to music festivals, because he’s very particular about where, when and how he listens to music. He doesn’t trust festival programmers to know what he wants to hear or why he wants to hear it.

He’s also the kind of guy to tell the owner to turn down the volume when the music’s too loud when he’s seated in his favorite cafe in Dublin.

“But aren’t you the music guy?” the owner will ask him.

“Exactly!” is Carney’s response.

“I’m a snob when it comes to music,” says Carney, the “music guy” filmmaker whose films “Once” and “Begin Again” are very much about music and its ability to touch people’s lives. His latest, “Sing Street,” opens Friday.

“Sing Street” is about Cosmo (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo), a high school student in Dublin in the early 1980s who starts a band to impress a girl. It’s named for Synge Street CBS, a Christian boys’ school that Carney himself attended growing up.

As a youngster, Carney learned to appreciate music through his mother, who would selectively play songs on the mono turntable in the family kitchen. The turntable wasn’t a fixture, she would only bring it out on special occasions.

“It was an event,” says Carney, on the phone last month while doing press for “Sing Street” in Chicago. “It was Music Night.”

Music Night became precious for Carney, and the scarcity of music made it rich. He remembers around the holidays listening to an old Christmas album from the 1950s, featuring warm, cozy versions of American holiday classics. Now, when Christmas music is blasted everywhere for the final two months of the year, it doesn’t have the same effect for him.

“It was special,” Carney says. “It loses its magic if you play it all the time.”

Carney would go on to play music all the time as the bassist for the rock group the Frames. But even as a touring musician playing shows at 18, 19 years old, “I wasn’t happy with it,” says Carney, now 44.

Part of it was he wasn’t the front man of the group, part of it was that music became something he had to do rather than doing it when he wanted.

“Music was my dream, I was doing it and I was getting paid for it,” he says. “But it was my job, and that took the magic out of it.”

While on tour in London, Carney popped into a photo shop and bought a Super 8 camera for 100 pounds. He had fooled around with camcorders before, making comedy sketches with friends, but thought there was more there. He thought maybe he could make an art movie.

“I remember thinking, ‘Do I stay in this band? Or do I become the leading man in film?’ ” Carney says. He chose the latter — “it seems courageous now,” he says — and pursued a career in filmmaking.

He made several films, beginning with 1996’s “November Afternoon,” and when he finally broke through with 2007’s “Once,” it was with the help of an old friend: The film starred Glen Hansard, lead singer of the Frames.

Carney has now translated his love of music to the movies and he gets to straddle the line between the two worlds. And he’s still fond of that first Super 8 camera and the process of shooting on film.

“When you shoot something and get it developed, it’s an amazing feeling, the wait for the footage to come back,” he says. “There’s that tantalizing moment when you get to see how your work turned out. I try to do that even on my iPhone. I’ll shoot something, put it in my pocket and I won’t look at it for a week.”


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‘Sing Street’

Opens today

See review on Page 1C