The Last Musical Filmmaker: How John Carney Revived a Dying Movie Genre

When you find your way into a song, anything is possible.

The movie musical didn’t get to die quickly, with a heart attack or a killshot; it died a long, slow, painful death, all the way through the back half of the 1960s. No one saw it coming. Audiences in the early ‘60s flocked to West Side Story, My Fair Lady, Mary Poppins, and especially The Sound of Music, which toppled Gone with the Wind from its perch as the highest-grossing movie of all time in 1965. But in the years that followed, one big-budget, roadshow-release musical after another tanked: Star!, Darling Lili, Doctor Doolittle, Paint Your Wagon, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, Sweet Charity, On a Clear Day You Can See Forever.

It’s not hard to guess why: as American culture was undergoing one of its most radical shifts, moviegoers (particularly young ones) weren’t looking for candy-coated escapism. They wanted films that reflected the reality of the times, pictures like The Graduate, Midnight Cowboy, and Easy Rider. And the newly instituted MPAA rating system allowed filmmakers to reflect, for the first time, an unfiltered vision of the world around them. In the years that followed, American cinema’s newfound appreciation for reality made films where characters burst into song and dance seem anachronistic to the point of absurdity. Musicals still thrived on the stage – as they always had – but aside from the occasional anomaly or sure-thing film adaptation of a Broadway hit, musical movies have become rare, and are treated by most filmmakers as a lark, a novelty to try (at most) once.

John Carney is different, though. Over a trilogy of films – 2007’s Once, 2013’s Begin Again, and Sing Street, out this week – Carney found an elegantly simple solution to the overwhelming problem of characters who burst into song: he makes movies about (wait for it) musicians. So his musicals are set in the “real world,” but he’s able to use his songs as the great movie musical makers (Vincente Minnelli, Stanley Donen, Jacques Demy, et al.) did: to capture an intensity of emotion that transcends mere dialogue.

You get that sense from the first full song in Once – it’s a top-to-bottom, single-take performance, starting wide on the verse and pushing in during the chorus. This is good old-fashioned camera choreography, albeit rough and handheld (reflecting the picture’s low-budget origins – and the dominant “realism” aesthetic of its era). But most importantly, the performer is singing his bloody heart out. The Guy (that’s how he’s credited; he’s played by singer/songwriter Glen Hansard) spends his days busking for tourists, and his guitar is an extension of his person: wild, untamed strings, but a big (extra) hole in the middle of the body. The Girl (Markéta Irglová) hears that first song, and his music makes him interesting to her; subsequently, her music is what makes her attractive to him. Their duet in the piano store where she sneaks off to play during her lunches isn’t just a musical number – it’s a love scene.

“You have a romantic streak,” she tells him, and he corrects her: “I used to have a romantic streak.” Once is about him finding it again, through her, and through the music they end up making together. He hears her voice and senses that she might have the intangible something that’s missing from his songs; either that, or the ping of attraction he feels for her makes him want to be a better writer and a better musician. (Either way’s fine; the music comes out stronger regardless.) It’s ultimately an unrequitable attraction – she’s got a husband back home – and when she breaks down and stops playing her song in the piano room, it’s because she knows she can only let another man so far in. Some music is just too personal.

It’s a film of wonderful, tiny, slice-of-life details. Her walk home with fresh batteries in her CD player and a song in her headphones, resulting in a sing-along musical number that takes place in both the character’s mind and the “real world.” The little grin on the studio engineer’s face when he realizes he’s got something special; it’s not overdone, but it’s there. The “car test” after the session, to see how the music sounds on garbage car-radio speakers – which, if it isn’t a real part of the recording process, should be.

Yet outside of its rough-hewn look and semi-mumblecore style, Once is marked by traditional musical beats, performances and montages in which feelings are expressed and backstories are told (hence the ease with which it was adapted into a hit Broadway show). But it’s free of the bloat and bluster that infect most movie musicals; it’s a tiny, slim movie (85 minutes), and it concludes on a note that’s bittersweet rather than bombastic.

Once ends with the Guy heading off to London with his demo tape, ready to take a crack at the music industry. Carney’s next musical, Begin Again, is explicitly about that industry, the story of a heartfelt musician meeting a burnt-out music businessman. Dan (Mark Ruffalo) co-founded an influential indie label but has found himself floundering in that sinking ship. One night, though, his whole world shifts. Wandering into a bar where an open mic is in progress, he observes Gretta (Keira Knightley) performing a song that he hears not as Product but as a lifeline.

It’s a simple guitar-and-vocal situation (like the Guy busking on the Dublin streets in Once), but as Dan listens, he closes his eyes and can hear the song as he’d produce it – drums here, strings there. The visualization of this moment, as those instruments alongside her play themselves, is a scene Begin Again’s many detractors love to ridicule, and yes, it’s a little silly. But it does what it needs to do: it allows us to hear what he hears. And it’s worth noting that a device like that wouldn’t get an odd blink in a traditional “musical.”

Begin Again amps up the star power – aside from Knightley and Ruffalo, Carney’s cast includes Catherine Keener, Yasiin Bey, Hailee Steinfeld, James Corden, and Adam Levine – and is far more structurally ambitious, with that open mic serving as an inciting event that his script detours from and circles back to from different perspectives. But the key themes and ideas remain. Knightley’s and Levine’s characters are both musicians, and Carney conveys how music becomes the relationship. It’s a film that knows, for example, that there could be no greater betrayal than taking a sincere and personal song and turning it into some kind of mindless pop junk, or that the kind of person who would reveal an affair via a lyric is no damn good. And when she tries to reconnect with him, she discovers that the contrasting albums they’ve cut during their hiatus represent their contrasting personalities – she’s raw and authentic, he’s slick and overproduced.

Theirs isn’t the only relationship that’s defined by songs. As Dan produces Gretta’s album, he tries to reconcile with his distant teenage daughter Violet (Steinfeld); they reconnect over music, and thanks to the musician. (Violet ends up playing on the album at Gretta’s invitation, and contrary to all concerns, she turns out to be a terrific guitarist, of course, of course.) And while Begin Again echoes Once’s notion that songs convey the things we can’t express through words, or wouldn’t (see: the answering machine kiss-off number), it’s also wise to the ways in which music becomes the shared language we all speak. Dan recalls his first date with his estranged wife (Keener), a night spent wandering the city with a headphone splitter, playing songs for each other. “I don’t think we said more than two words to each other the whole night,” he says, before he and Gretta embark on a similar outing.

A fair number of Once’s fans loathe Begin Again, with a vigor that’s disproportionate to the film itself, which is (incoming hot take) Just Fine. I’d imagine some of the venom was inevitable, what with the participation of Levine (and, for that matter, Corden). And unlike Once, its music is a little dodgy – not bad, necessarily, but a little vanilla, safe, and poppy in comparison. A fair number of critics were also skeptical of the film’s sexlessness; that’s understandable, considering the way Gretta looks at Dan (and he looks at her) as they dance to Stevie Wonder’s “For Once in My Life” during a literal recreation of his first date with his wife. You can chalk that up, as our own Elisabeth Donnelly did, to a strange puritanism in Carney’s work. But frankly, I think it’s simply that, for these characters, the act of sex could never be as good as the act of creative collaboration.

After all, the closest the Guy and Girl get to physical consummation comes at the end of their marathon, weekend-long recording session. He asks if she wants to hang out, promising, “It won’t be hanky-panky,” to which she responds, “You know it would.” They don’t fool around, but they don’t need to; they’ve spent a weekend making music together, the way another new couple might spend a long, exhausting weekend in bed. In Begin Again, Gretta and Dan’s sex scene isn’t some awkward, sweaty hook-up after their night with the headphone splitter; it’s the one where they decide to put their record out online, themselves – a scene whose own climactic moment, as their hands intertwine over the mouse pad, plays out like a shared orgasm.

There’s an argument to be made that the musical numbers in classic movies existed because their makers couldn’t take the same liberties as their contemporary counterparts; they couldn’t show Fred and Ginger fucking, so they showed them dancing. Yet perhaps the pendulum has swung in the other direction – maybe onscreen sexuality has become so explicit that its substitutions, whether in the form of collaborative music or unrequited romance, seem comparatively subversive. Or maybe there’s just something sweet and untouched, and therefore novel, about the first flush of love – a feeling that Carney’s latest film traces back to its earliest, and most intense, incarnation.

Thus, if Begin Again is Once’s spiritual sequel, Sing Street is its prequel. (There’s even a sly appearance by a Hoover vacuum.) You get the sense that he’s atoning for the perceived sins of Begin Again by making something smaller in scope, set back in Ireland, with only a few recognizable faces. And if the music in Begin Again wasn’t convincing, the songs of Sing Street are given cover by the period setting – they sound exactly right for 1985.

He tells the story of Conor (Ferdida Walsh-Peelo), a 15-year-old from a poor family whose parents are right on the edge of a split. But he has his music, and as his wise older brother Brendan (Jack Reynor) puts it as they watch Duran Duran on Top of the Pops, “What tyranny could stand up to that?” Conor has plenty to stand up to; Carney cuts from that scene to the headmaster of the tough school where he’s the new kid, and when he’s not getting shit from that rule-spouting twit, he’s getting bullied by a nasty sociopath with a crew cut.

Following a grand tradition, Conor starts a band to meet a girl, the mysterious Raphina (Lucy Boynton), who says she’s a model, though there doesn’t seem to be much market for that in their neighborhood. But he starts the band, recruiting a bassist, a drummer, a keyboard player, and Eamon (Mark McKenna), who “can play every instrument known to mankind.” He’s a quietly perfect character, who shrugs, “I just want to play music,” takes everything as it comes, and is always ready to say yes when Conor knocks on his door and asks if he wants to write his song.

Their songwriting sequences are among the film’s best; as with the studio section of Once, this is a filmmaker showing how musicians break open an engine and tinker around. In those scenes, and throughout Sing Street, Carney conveys the joy and escape of creativity, as well as the hope and longing his protagonist feels for Raphina in the songs he writes, and his band plays, for her. This kind of thing is infectious; she appears in their music videos, and explains that she’ll do anything “for our art,” because “you can never do anything by half!”

Those videos look exactly right, by the way – cheap and derivative, but derived from the sensible sources. More than that, they’re energetic. The band isn’t good right off the bat, a mistake many music movies make, but they’re also not so comically bad they could never be good, a mistake made by many more. One of the film’s good running gags is how each new influence Brendan introduces Conor to becomes the next thing the band imitates, in their musical style and fashion sense. It’s a funny bit, but it’s also true: in music, film, painting, and just about any creative art form, fumbling through imitation is how you find your own style.

The character of Brendan functions much as Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Lester Bangs did in Almost Famous; he provides mottos (“Rock and roll is a risk”), keen insights (which Conor then recites verbatim to others), and education (he hands him key albums and insists, “This is school.”). His brother is an inspiration and a mentor – and like such people often are, he’s also a cautionary tale. He’s full of wisdom and talent, but he’s also a smoked-up burnout who rarely leaves his record player. “But once,” he assures his brother, “I was a fucking jet engine.

And that’s the blood that flows throughout Carney’s films. In Once, our protagonists go to the bank to get a small loan to pay for their demo session, and when they finish the pitch, the manager asks, “Can I show you something?” Carney cuts to the man in the suit, earnestly singing and strumming his guitar – a guitar he keeps hidden, somewhere in that office. Music and musical dreams are common currency, and inside anyone with a creative bone in their body lurks the question of the something you could be if you just get the shot, or (more often) could’ve been if you’d just taken it. These are big, bold themes – operatic, even – and while they can be expressed in words (like this simple exchange in Once, between the guy and his father: “I’m goin’ tomorrow, dad.” “Good man, about time… Make your mark”), they find power in the song that ends Sing Street, with its urgent, intense hook: “You’re never gonna stop if you don’t go now / You’re never gonna know if you don’t find out.”

The studio performance of “When Your Mind’s Made Up” in Once wrecks me every time; the emotion and force of this song are bigger than any dialogue could contain. There’s a scene like that in Sing Street, in which Conor and his band are shooting what he envisions as an elaborate, “American prom” music video in the school gym. They’ve only got a ragtag handful of extras, with no choreography and no costumes or decoration to speak of. But as he performs, we see the video Conor’s imagining. It’s the first time Carney’s ever really gone into an “imagined” musical number, and the effect is devastating. In the impossibly shiny and joyful video of his mind’s eye, the band is playing perfectly, their song catchy and infectious yet heartfelt. The headmaster approves, Conor’s parents are back together, his brother is happy, and the girl looks at him with love in her eyes.

That knockout sequence holds the key to Sing Street, and to all of Carney’s musicals – the idea that when you find your way into a song, you can create your own destiny. And inside that song and the world you make there, everything works out, and anything is possible.

Sing Street is out Friday in limited release.