4 Star Double Feature – Coming of Age Flicks

Starter for 10 (2006)

The cast boasts the likes of James McAvoy, Benedict Cumberbatch, Rebecca Hall, Alice Eve, and even James Corden all in one film together! The year is 1985 and Brian is off to his first year at university which turns into a formative moment in his life of new experiences, romantic entanglements, and, yes, even trivia. He’s really good at trivia. But sometimes being good at trivia still cannot prepare you for the things that life throws at you. That’s what makes life, life and not a game show as he finds out.

Sing Street (2016)

Also set in 1985 but in this case in Dublin, Sing Street is a high school coming of age story about a boy who forms a band to get a girl. It’s a simple premise but John Carney’s film explores much of the turbulence as well as the glories of that time in life. It’s about love and music and personal exploration. It also happens to be a darn good musical with a steady stream of catchy 80s tunes both real and fictional.

Sing Street (2016)

Sing_Street_posterA famed philosopher of the MTV age once sang “video killed the radio star,” and John Carney’s Sing Street is a tribute to that unequivocal truth. Certainly, it’s what some might call a return to form for the director, landing closer to his previous work in Once, and staging the way for some wonderfully organic musical numbers set against the backdrop of Dublin circa 1985. In this respect, it’s another highly personal entry, and Carney does well to grab hold of the coming-of-age narrative.

Our main point of interest is Conor, a lad thrown into a new school of hellish proportions and of course, there’s a girl, and he wants to get to know said girl. What follows soon thereafter is the inception of an entire band, the eponymous Sing Street. So in essence, the band forms so he can get the girl. It’s that simple and it works…sort of.

By all accounts, she’s an untouchable goddess, a year older than him, with a mature boyfriend and aspirations of modeling in England. And yet Raphina deigns to stoop to their level and take part in their first foray into music video-making. It’s in such moments that the film unabashedly hoists up its 80s sensibilities, suggesting Carney’s own personal affection for that day and age. Because amidst all the god-awful make-up, outrageous costumes and mimicry of the new wave scene, there’s a sense of amusement. Since every boy, at one time or another, has gone through these different phases and stages, like a sponge soaking up all conceivable inspirations. In this case, Conor’s older brother Brendan becomes his pontificating Buddha of rock n’ roll. His influences run the gamut from Duran Duran to the Cure and most definitely a little David Bowie.

But his band also develops into a wonderfully liberating beast to combat the furies of the world. Conor is consumed by grand dreams of Back to the Future themed prom nights at an American-style high school. Meanwhile, his parents are continually squabbling at home and his dream girl leaves for London without a word of goodbye. But he uses his newfound outlet paired with the guidance of his brother to turn his stray thoughts and accumulating angst into something of true substance. Namely, Conor and the versatile Eamon, have a bit of a Lennon-McCartney partnership going, as far as creative genius goes, proceeding to run with each spark of an idea that strikes. In fact, with all the boys, there’s a matter-of-fact gravity to it all, because forming a band is a serious business — it’s a concerted effort not to succumb to the grisly fate of yet another gutted cover band.

Like any formative tale about young men and women, Sing Street suggests the vital importance of personal identity and chasing after dreams in particular. You see it with Conor as he constantly dons new facades, not simply in a search for greater artistic expression, but personal freedom.

But where he breaks with his big brother, is what he actually does with the inspiration that has been passed down to him from the rock gods. He uses its whole potential as a gateway to the way of life that he desires — making the most of the opportunities that are afforded him — even if they are a long shot. As the movie progresses Raphina looks younger and younger, and it hardly seems by accident. Over time, she sheds layer after layer of makeup and manicuring to reveal a bit more of herself, until the tipping point where all her dreams come cascading down, and she has nowhere to hide. In fact, in these more fragile moments, Lucy Boynton is reminiscent of a young Felicity Jones.

Admittedly “Sing Street” has a ludicrous ending and there are moments that it tilts towards the plastic production values of  “Begin Again” rather than the sincerity of Once, but that’s a lot of what the 80s feels like. It’s fake. It’s this construction projected up on a screen. And that’s precisely what this film is saluting and celebrating, but that’s only the half of it. Raphina rightfully points out you can never do art half way. That’s what rock n’ roll is in a sense. It’s audacious exploration, risk-taking and a bit of foolishness in the name of chasing your dreams, usually involving a girl. Thus, the film is not wholly original, even for Carney, who has drawn from the same well three times over, but like any artist, he’s able to discover fresh inspiration from old cisterns. After all, every member of humanity is in one way another a broken work of art, beautifully complicated, and that’s worth returning to again and again.

4/5 Stars

Begin Again (2013)

beginagain1Unfortunately, John Carney’s Begin Again loses the unassuming charm of his earlier musical effort Once, with higher production values, bigger names, and a more crafted sound. However, it still rides easily on the charisma of its big-name stars Keira Knightley and Mark Ruffalo. They are two individuals who have their lives wrecked and this crazy, fractured mess of a city becomes the perfect backdrop for two equally broken lives.

The film opens with differing perspectives on one point in time at a bar in New York. Dan Mulligan used to be a big recorder label exec maybe 10 or 15 years ago, but now his partner has pushed him out because he hasn’t acquired any new clients in ages. He’s all washed up and his family life isn’t much better. He’s estranged from his wife (Catherine Keener) and hardly sees his teenage daughter (Hailee Steinfeld). Given the situation, he heads to the bar to drown his sorrows after an awful day in and out of the office.

beginagain4Meanwhile, Gretta James (Keira Knightley) arrived at that same nightclub by very different circumstances. She is the girlfriend of up and coming pop singer Dave Kohl (Adam Levine), but she has a penchant for songwriting on the side. It’s nothing major and yet she certainly has a passion for it. However, with increasing busyness and the fame going to his head, Kohl and Gretta have a falling out. The first place she can turn is her old friend (James Corden) and he invites her to a night of music which she reluctantly agrees to.

That’s how she ends up in front of the microphone playing one of her personal tunes for the mildly interested audience. And yet one man is very interested. Dan is almost pulled out of his stupor by the song’s beauty and he immediately goes over to sign her. She thinks it’s a joke or at least she’s not at all interested in the fame. She independent and she wants to keep her work her own.

But he’s eventually able to cajole her into a unique musical endeavor. They won’t record her songs in your typical studio, but instead, all of New York will be theirs for the using. Thus, the joy of music brings a ragtag group of musicians and aficionados together to make something special and ultimately beautiful.

beginagain5Gretta is able to straighten things out with her boyfriend content with where she leaves them. As for Dave, he gets back with his wife and there is a new found connection forming with his daughter thanks in part to his new friend’s undue influence. In some sense, this film has a Lost in Translation type friendship. Two very different people in two very different life stages, but they have one important connection. In this case music, and it could be made into something romantic, but it doesn’t force its characters into that.

I’m a bit doubtful that they had splitters back when Ruffalo was first with his wife, but what do I know? No matter, it makes for a fun jaunt through New York listening to the tunes of Sinatra, Wonder, and Casablanca. If you are a lover of music, Begin Again is a thoroughly enjoyable film. It begs the question, what do you do the music for? What’s at the heart of it? Is it about the money, the fame, or the pure joy that comes with creating and sharing your craft with those who you hold most dear?

3.5/5 Stars

Once (2007)

once1Only sometime after the film ended did I come to the realization that we never learn the names of our two protagonists. And yet we build such a connection with them through music, through their bits of humanity, and from being a part of their lives for a short time. Because Once really does feel like a documentary. It feels like we’re meeting these people and peering into their lives for an hour an a half of sheer delight.

The guy (Glen Hansard) is an Irish street performer who can be found on the street corners, guitar case open, strumming away, hoping to get a buck or two. He’s good but nobody much seems to notice him. It’s as if people see you doing such a gig and think you must not be very important. I must admit I’m guilty of such a fallacy myself many a time. But there is one person who does come up to him. It’s a girl (Marketa Irglova), very straightforward and direct, and we learn she is Czech. What could two such people have in common? Music. Of course. The universal language even more so than English. Because she obviously has an accent and he does too, to my American ears, but their music transcends cultures.

It’s easy to forget Once technically functions as a modern-day musical because more often than not the genre seems like a dying breed. The songs in this film are beautifully melodic, with wonderfully earnest lyrics, and equally well-wrought instrumentation. But it fits into the narrative and nothing feels like a forced plug to get our respect. They’re laying it out there. Letting us into their homes and keeping all their feelings out in the open. Really they both have a humble existence, and each has had their own romantic pasts. He has memories of a love who now lives in London and despite her young age, the girl has a husband she left behind in her home country. It’s a surprise to him and the audience both.

once2Their ride on a motorcycle, for a brief instant, brought to mind the Vespa ride in Roman Holiday, although their excursion is a little less chaotic. There’s still an innate playfulness of people with wonderful chemistry and whether they are acting or not is anyone’s guess.

Everything goes back to the music though since that acts as the heart and soul of this story. When the pair of them are able to get a recording studio it looks like he might get his big chance. He invites her to sing because he really wants her to be a part of it. He rounds up a few more street musicians and they’re set. When they get to the recording studio and the tape starts rolling what follows is a performance bursting with passion and energy. You can feel the electricity. It feels as if we’re on the ground floor of something special, unwinding right before our eyes and yet we don’t know exactly what is going to happen. He’s about to head off to London to show off his sample and perhaps catch up with an old flame. She is preparing to make amends with her husband. But before leaving the guy drops a very big present on her doorstep to thank her for all she’s done for him.

Their tune “Falling Slowly” plays in refrain summing up this music-infused love story. The question is, is this an actual love story? I would answer in the affirmative. There is no sex in the contemporary sense, but this film does most certainly have love, whether or not it becomes physical. And it acknowledges the clear distinction between sex and love. These are two people who deeply care about each other and share a connection more intimate than most people can manage.

4/5 Stars