Saturday 16 December 2017

Young men on song for Sing Street

'Sing Street', the latest musical from John Carney, is set to storm the Irish box office. Two of its young stars talk to us about sudden stardom and how life and art merge

Mark McKenna and Ferdia Walsh-Peelo. Photo: David Conachy
Mark McKenna and Ferdia Walsh-Peelo. Photo: David Conachy

Hilary A White

For the next week, life is about to get rather interesting for the two young men sitting in front of me. By the time you read this, Sing Street will have been out three days in cinemas nationwide. The strong likelihood - if you are to believe critics on both sides of the Atlantic and the steady hype that has been bubbling away since its January premiere at Sundance - is that it will be No.1 at the Irish box office come Friday. Advanced screenings here have some even murmuring that John Carney's third musical drama (after the all-conquering Once and Begin Again) could become one of the highest-grossing Irish films of all time.

"It's funny," Ferdia Walsh-Peelo grins at his co-star and on-stage musical foil, Mark McKenna. "A year ago we were on the street just playing music for a bit of pocket money. And now everything's changed. You have this movie coming out and you're just experiencing Dublin in a whole different way. Instead of running around and being robbed, people shouting at you, now you're wearing nice clothes and sitting in nice cafes with people saying 'are you that guy from that film?'"

McKenna, the more cool-headed Dublin yang to Walsh-Peelo's espresso-swigging Wicklow yin, puts it brusquely: "I can see this going one of two very different ways: 'Oh are you the lad in the film?' or 'Are you da' queer from d'filum?'"

The 19-year-old is being overly harsh on his fellow countrymen. We meet in a Dublin hotel mere hours ahead of Sing Street's release. Between the Paddy's Day launch date and the green-and-orange poster font, all this has the feel of something preordained, a natural appendage to both Irish cinema's awards season hot streak and the 1916 centenary.

Carney's autobiographical tale of a teenager called Conor (Walsh- Peelo), his band (McKenna and co), a girl called Raphina who he's trying to woo (English actress Lucy Boynton) and the brother guiding him (Jack Reynor) is a blissful confection of rock'n'roll, young love and bad eighties fashion. While it will be compulsive viewing for any child of that decade, it is also a love letter to days when your music taste not only defined you to the world, it explained the emotional landscape at an age when hormones can scramble logic.

"The film definitely brings you back to that," agrees the 16-year-old Walsh-Peelo. "It's something that is a big part of Conor's life and is very personal to John. Because that's what it was. Music was an escape, they found refuge in it [on] those shit days where you don't get the girl and you go home and you write a song."

For both first-time actors, various alignments of the stars saw life and art get muddled. Walsh-Peelo's father (the RTE journalist Mick Peelo, presenter of Would You Believe?) and uncles all attended the same grotty Synge Street Christian Brothers School that Conor negotiates in the story. Ferdia's mother Toni, a classically trained soprano, gave him a musical upbringing that equipped him for the role. Freakishly, both his real and fictional grandfathers worked on the ferry to Holyhead.

McKenna's character, meanwhile, is a lad called Eamon whose dad is a musician. McKenna's real-life father is a musician called Eamon.

Besides all this, both play music-mad teenagers who hate school. Themselves, in other words.

Carney can be credited for many things - his ability to avoid syrupy sentimentalism while mining the human heart, his ear for a catch-all soundtrack, the yield he gets from untrained actors - but these coincidences are beyond his control. Another thing he may not have foreseen is the bond forged on set between these two. When McKenna lopes in late, he is given a hearty embrace by Walsh-Peelo, even though they were hanging out just the night before.

The more they tell me about the showbiz lottery they've both won, the less surprising this magic appears. Carney's aim to eschew the 'director/dictator' aura looks to have worked. McKenna mumbles gaily about extras scrapping on set, rabbits pooing through improv scenes and slagging one of Ireland's finest ever filmmakers relentlessly. "I crashed the boat at one stage," Walsh-Peelo yelps about other beautiful accidents left in the final cut. When his character is squirming through an impromptu rendition of A-ha's Take On Me to impress Raphina, that's the real 14-year-old Ashford boy on the spot in front of a beautiful 20-year-old actress he's just met.

Playing sets at film festivals (performing songs from the brilliant original soundtrack), celebrity fans (Jay Z and Sting have reportedly given the thumbs-up) and a new line in casting directors (McKenna auditioned for Christopher Nolan's ambitious Dunkirk project) are all very well - but what do their parents make of this swelling carnival?

"My mum was with me a lot on set," Walsh-Peelo says, trying to tame an unruly mop. "I was under 16 so I had to be chaperoned. She loved it! There wasn't much inappropriate stuff in the film, no awkward moments." His three musician brothers are in showbiz - one plays violin for Hudson Taylor and Kodaline - but Ferdia was the first in the family to do film work (if you exclude Mick's appearance in Alex Gibney's documentary Mea Maxima Culpa).

Mark comes in with an anecdote about his dad teaching him Michael, Row the Boat Ashore on guitar two years before he is on the big screen playing guitar at Sundance. "He would have loved to have been in something like this when he was growing up. So that was pretty weird for me," he shrugs, and by "weird" you take it to mean "wonderful".

Chatting with the pair, you can forget just how obscenely young they are. McKenna talks about having an essay to write (he studies song-writing at the BIMM music college in Dublin) the day after our meeting. Walsh-Peelo, on the other hand, speaks with authority about Sing Street being a spiritual cousin of The Commitments (which came out nine years before his birth).

They clearly have good people around them as they enter this world of autographs and media speculation, because they sound prepared. Not for them, they insist, the prospect of being labelled "those lads from that music film". "You've got to keep in mind you're not going to get another role like this," Walsh-Peelo insists. "It was just perfect."

'Sing Street' is in cinemas nationwide

Sunday Independent

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