Pete Townshend, guitar god of The Who, says he learned to play guitar and started a band for two reasons:
A: His nose. B. To meet girls.
About his nose he said, “It was huge. It was the reason I played guitar.” He also noted that bands (even band-members with large noses) “always got the best girls.”
“It is definitely one of the things that inspires lads to play music,” agrees Sing Street star Ferdia Walsh-Peelo.
Ask most male musicians why they joined a band and 99 out of 100 will tell you it was for one very simple reason, to meet women. Art, money and fame are often far distant second place to the lure of the opposite sex. Such is the case with Conor (Walsh-Peelo) a fifteen-year-old school by with a crush on Raphina (Lucy Boynton) in Sing Street, the new musical romance from Once director John Carney that plays like a spiritual cousin to The Commitments.
“I think that is the thing that gets Conor started and gets people started pop music,” he says. “Then you form the band and you find refuge in the music. It becomes more than just getting the girl. It’s actually a way of coping when things are crap.
“I didn’t have a great time in school and I went through all these similar kind of phases [as Conor]. I remember seeing [the John Lennon biopic] Nowhere Boy and me and this other guy at school bought leather jackets, gelled our hair back and went into school. Bringing combs with us and doing our hair like in Grease. Looking like complete twats running around town just doing mad stuff. It’s all part of the process. Finding yourself and finding your voice.”
Born and reared just thirty minutes outside Dublin in in County Wicklow, in the film the young actor is the perfect picture of an 80s rock star, despite knowing next to nothing about the decade or the music when he signed on to play Conor.
“It was a huge learning curve,” he says. “I hadn’t reached that point where I was diving into 80s music. I suppose I was up to the late Sixties. When I went into Sing Street I was playing bands and we were still in that place. I was listening to loads of country, music from Tennessee, skiffle music, bluegrass. I had been experimenting with loads of different kinds of music and I got into the 80s stuff when we shot the movie.
“It took me a while but then I got into it after watching a million ridiculous 80s videos. I just got it,” he says. “They just weren’t taking themselves seriously at all. It was just that kind of era. It was all just mad, wasn’t it? There was loads of horrendous stuff around at that time but there were a few gems. Hall and Oates are absolute gems of the pop stuff.”
The musician-turned-actor also singles out The Cure and The Talking Heads as great stuff,” but says his heart lies in folk music.
“Folk music is always where it’s been at for me. I played skiffle music with bands for the craic (fun) of it but when I came back, in my room I’d be listening to Joni Mitchell.”
Near the end of “Begin Again,” the new musical romance from “Once” director John Carney, record producer Dan (Mark Ruffalo) instructs a guitar player, who is also his daughter (Hailee Steinfeld), to “keep it simple.” It seems director Carney took the advice as well, using the KISS principle—Keep It Simple Stupid—in the telling of this uncluttered story of redemption and pop songs.
When we first meet Dan he’s having a bad day. His estranged daughter is mouthing off to him, he gets fired from the label he helped create and even his car breaks down. The day—by this time it’s night, actually—improves when he stumbles into a bar to drink his blues away and hears Gretta (Keira Knightley) singing a sad song from the stage. In his mind’s eye he hears a hit, a song that could make her a star and give him another shot at relevancy.
Before he can begin again, however, he must help Gretta get over her ex-boyfriend, up-and-coming rock star Dave Kohl (Adam Levine)—he’s the kind of guy whose voicemail says, “It’s Dave. I’m probably doing something awesome so I won’t get back to you… ever.”—and her distrust of the trappings of fame.
“Begin Again” is as much about the love of music and it’s ability to heal as it is about the various relationships it essays. Carney is covering familiar ground here. His film “Once” breathed the same air, but it’s rarefied air, and he pulls it off with panache.
For instance, Gretta and Dan bond over a shared iPod filled with their favorite songs. Taken by the music they have a “we have to dance right now” moment, but it’s done with a twist when they go to a club and dance to their own music courtesy of their iPod earphones while everyone around them literally dances to the beat of a different drummer.
Ruffalo brings considerable passion to the role of Dan, an “I’ve-been-down-so-long it’s-looking-up-to-me” kind of guy. He’s a walking cliché, a record man who got eaten up by the business and a rough personal life, but Ruffalo gives him a soulfulness that’s very winning.
Knightley looks like an undiscovered indie darling, bringing a delicate but steely sensibility to her performance and the songs that help tell the story.
“The Voice” alum Levine and CeeLo Green (as a successful musician who owes Dan a favor or two) lend some music industry cred to their roles, but the heavy lifting, acting wise, is done by Ruffalo and Knightley.
“Begin Again” is a self contained story with a beginning, middle and satisfying end, but sets itself up for a sequel in the subtlest of ways. Dan comes up with the usual idea of recording Gretta’s album outdoors to get a real taste of New York in the grooves. After successfully setting up under the Brooklyn Bridge and in Central Park, Gretta suggests they could expand their horizons and make records on the streets of several other European cities. I’m not sure if that’s enough to build a franchise around, but I’d sure like to spend some more time with these characters.