An illustration of John Carney with musical notes surrounding his face.
Illustration by Nasim Ellahi, Columbia College Chicago
Screens /// Thoughts x
An illustration of John Carney with musical notes surrounding his face.
Illustration by Nasim Ellahi, Columbia College Chicago

Movies don’t need to be complex in order to resonate with audiences; they just need just emotional gravitas. A killer soundtrack helps, too.

Connection. Healing. Redemption. These tropes have been ingrained in the collective psyche of cinema in many forms, most notably in grandiose forms like the hero who saves the world. So if audiences already know them well, how can they be presented in a way that is still compelling? The answer is in their execution. In order to make a familiar story feel like new, the details must be handled with care. Irish film director John Carney’s most successful works — “Once” (2007), “Begin Again” (2013) and “Sing Street” (2016) — accomplish this by depicting these tropes in everyday people. Each of these films reveals the beauty in small transformations as well as the gradations of how people become better. Energized by his thoughtful decisions for plot structures, cinematography and music, Carney creates cinematic treasures teeming with compassion and creativity.

Traditionally, films are organized in three-act structures with a defined setup, conflict and resolution. Within this framework, the audience understands how a story progresses, so they will arrive at the finale with some degree of satisfaction and a feeling that the narrative arc has concluded. The formula is meant to deliver a story that feels complete. Carney, on the other hand, has refrained from using this blueprint because he doesn’t portray narratives that can be neatly subdivided. Their synopses can easily be summarized in a sentence or two.

While his films do maintain basic plots structures for coherence, they are more focused on the growth of their characters. They prize the joy of the journey over the outcome. For instance, “Once” isn’t so much about everything that happens to a busker and a young mother as it is about what they learn from each other and about themselves. This prioritization of progression over result is present in Carney’s other two biggest movies. Additionally, all three have open endings, marking another example of Carney’s departure from convention. By the end, all the protagonists — the nameless man and woman in “Once,” Gretta and Dan in “Begin Again” and Conor in “Sing Street” — are headed in better directions, having been significantly changed by their experiences.

The most important takeaway from these films is the sense of contentment that accompanies their respective conclusions. It shows that Carney’s objective isn’t to tell a neat, finite story. It is to tell one that makes the viewer feel they have witnessed a real shift from hopelessness to peace of mind. This is a universal desire that can resonate with audiences everywhere, and Carney uses it well.

Carney’s production choices are also key to his films because they indicate an appreciation for simplicity over spectacle. “Once” clearly looks like a low-budget film with its lack of staged lighting, unglamorous shooting locations in Dublin — small shops, street squares and tiny apartments — and its cast of amateur actors. “Begin Again” is different because it uses a more classic cinematic look — lots of sunlight and bright colors — and has a cast of more recognizable actors. “Sing Street” features many unknown ators like “Once,” but like “Begin Again,” it also uses sleeker visuals.

The three films don’t share a uniform look, but share an affinity for natural beauty in all its varieties and speak to Carney’s filmmaking preferences. Another definitive aspect of his style is the heavy use of handheld cameras. The simple decision of placing and holding a camera makes all the difference in how the subject is presented and perceived. By using handhelds that show shakiness and movement instead of stationary cameras, the camera acts like a pair of eyes, lending a human touch to the work. One example is this scene in “Begin Again” when Dan and Gretta explore New York City while sharing a headphone splitter.

Handheld cameras are used to shoot the majority of the scene, which makes the viewer feel like they are walking with the characters and sharing the exhilaration of the moment with them. Through his cinematography, Carney pleasantly blurs the barrier between the viewer and the character.

Carney’s films cannot be discussed without mentioning their soundtracks. Generally speaking, music is an important aspect of cinema for its numerous practical uses. It can move a story along and build emotional impact, as is evidenced by the wistful swell of strings as Luke Skywalker gazes at the binary sunsets. It can provide an ironic contrast to a moment in order to make a point, such as the simultaneously anxious and happy music that accompanies Truman Burbank as he realizes things aren’t what they seem. It can even become its own character of sorts.

Carney utilizes the near-anthropomorphization of music to his advantage. His three most popular movies have their differences, but they converge in one important way. All of them are about music and its ability to nourish and heal. Every main character is a musician who finds solace through their craft and a shared love of it with others.

Music is also used to reflect the growth in these characters and reveals yet another staple of Carney’s movies: the songwriter. The progress they make — Carney’s own musical background lends them authenticity — is not only expressed through dialogue and exposition but in music the characters write themselves. In “Begin Again,” Gretta starts out singing melancholy ballads in a bar (“A Step You Can’t Take Back”) and gradually shifts to upbeat and hopeful performances on rooftops (“Tell Me If You Wanna Go Home”).

In “Sing Street,” Conor moves from lamenting acoustic tunes in his bedroom to energetic anthems (“Drive It Like You Stole It”) with the help of his band. In “Once,” there’s little evolution through songwriting, but music is still the mechanism that allows the characters to evolve emotionally, starting with their first jam session (“Falling Slowly”).

In an interview for the making-of special for “Begin Again,” Carney discusses wanting to make a movie about a character finding themself through art. This is a feat he accomplishes in all three movies, and never once does the impact fail to land.

As the streaming age continues to plow forward in its relentless search for The Next Big Movie, it has been easy for Carney’s films to be lost in the shuffle. However, they deserve more recognition. Through his uplifting fusions of honest storytelling, simple cinematography and sparkling soundtracks, his work is always a joy to watch and proves that the filmmaker’s intentions have been beautifully realized. “Once,” “Begin Again” and “Sing Street” remind audiences that everyday life is not a three-act structure. It’s a wonderful, chaotic mess of joys and heartaches alike that, when creatively harnessed, inspires meaningful art.


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