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The perfectly imperfect world of John Carney

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(‘Once’ Official Facebook page)

The squeak of fingers sliding across a fretboard. A vocalist’s bated breath caught in the microphone; some flaws are best left unrectified. Yet, in a society — armed with its technological arsenal — obsessed with sanding off every rough edge, auto tuned voices and filtered photos run the game. Where this relentless, unrealistic yearning for perfection threatens to suffocate us, John Carney’s low-budget indie films are a breath of fresh air.

Carney first stepped into the Hollywood scene with his 2007 musical “Once.” Shot amidst the bustling streets of his hometown Dublin, Ireland, the film stars The Frames front man Glen Hansard and Czech singer Markéta Irglová as the lead pair — neither having any previous acting experience, which only adds to the authenticity of their portrayals. “Once” possesses a raw honesty that’s hard to come by in cinema today. In an interview with USA Today, director Steven Spielberg revealed, “A little movie called ‘Once’ gave me enough inspiration to last the rest of the year.”

Though a musical, “Once” is free from the pretense of tunes blaring from unidentified sources and apparent strangers dancing to perfectly synchronized choreography. It’s an unadorned depiction of two struggling individuals and how they regain their footing in life with the help of one another and, most importantly, with the help of music. Moreover, it consciously steps back from the pit of romantic predictability and snatches from the viewer the ease of anticipating another ‘boy meets girl and they fall in love’ narrative. Perhaps the greatest appeal of “Once” (and that of all of Carney’s subsequent works) is its soundtrack.

Unlike most films, where music is a background — an afterthought — scattered throughout the screenplay to fill in the blanks, here it appears to be an inseparable part of the story’s fabric from its inception. The music — much of which Carney wrote himself — radiates off the screen and runs joltingly through your bones. Additionally, at a time when nonsensical, monosyllabic gibberish constitutes Billboard chart-toppers, Carney’s poetic, “God, tell us the reason youth is wasted on the young,” or, “you find a mystery bound in perfection—you wanna read but you don’t wanna reach the end,” is a much welcome change. “Falling Slowly,” one such gem from the “Once” soundtrack, went on to win the Oscar for the Best Original Song in 2008.

Carney returned in 2013 with “Begin Again,” and though the stakes were higher this time with the likes of Kiera Knightley and Mark Ruffalo adorning the cast, Carney once again delivered with his simplistic charm and breathtaking original music. Here, Carney stepped out of his comfort zone, turning his lens from the familiar streets of Dublin to the unexplored chaos of New York City and working with professional actors as opposed to newbies. What emerged was a refreshing take on the age-old story of heartbreak interspersed with his usual songwriting genius. The unexpected climax of the film, when Knightley rides off into the sunset on her bicycle, leaves the viewer with a warm glow and something to think about.

2017 witnessed Carney return to his home turf of Dublin with “Sing Street.” Carney found his cast for this 1980s-set musical fantasy by holding open auditions, thereby once again landing himself at the helm of a ship steering amateur actors to the big screen. The protagonist, Connor “Cosmo” Lawlor (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo) wears the relatable skins of having a torn family and attending a barbarically-disciplined Catholic school.

However, fate takes a turn when he meets Raphina (Lucy Boynton), who claims to be an aspiring model. In a desperate leap to impress, he asks her to star in his band’s music video. Herein lies the catch:  No such band exists. Thus unfolds the tale of musical discovery, as Connor pieces together his initially non-existent band while undergoing a journey of self-discovery himself. While the therapeutic role of music is the overarching theme of “Sing Street,” it contains captivating undertones of regret and wistfulness along with a moving glimpse into the relationship of brothers. Once again, Carney doesn’t disappoint. He creates a world of teenage fantasy and splendor and weaves in it an infectious soundtrack true to its epoch; one that 18-year-old Walsh-Peelo’s voice makes hard to ignore.

The world of Carney is a perfectly imperfect one, free from the shackles of cinematic clichés, playback lip-syncing and star-studded casts. It is a naked, vulnerable view of life, with characters that stay with you long after the credits roll, and songs that stay with you forever.

Bhavya Pant can be reached at [email protected]

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