I know! It’s only rock n’ roll, but I like it. This film tries to capture the essence of what makes the genre so appealing to millions of people, including myself: it’s a type of music that allows us to project our fantasies onto it, to live out collective (if sometimes closeted) dreams of sexual triumphalism and societal transgression which all too often go unrealised in the normal circumstances of everyday life. Two minute blasts of fun by people who can barely read music or string coherent lyrics together are just the kind of pick-me-ups many of us need after the petty annoyances of work or school, because bewildering success in the face of amateurism is endearing and relatable. And when our favourite bands simultaneously stick it to the man and into the women (or occasionally men) at every available opportunity, it can seem like a pretty neat alternative to the common frustrations that us mortals experience in our daily lives.
Sing Street is inherently sympathetic towards this escapist element of rock n’ roll, indulging in lush fantasy sequences of imagined musical triumphs for the protagonist, which contrast with the grim reality of his everyday life in Dublin, where he faces institutionalised bullying and unrequited love at school, and an unstable family unit threatened by imminent divorce at home. In one telling moment, Conor gathers his brother and sister around a record player, blasting out music in order to drown out the noise of their parents arguing. Music has always been about escaping one’s troubles, and this scene is a perfect encapsulation of that urge.
John Carney, this film’s writer and director, manages to convey the working class roots of this music, and how it can provide one with the hope to escape the oppressiveness of one’s surroundings, a theme that can also be evidenced in his astonishingly successful debut Once. Carney also gets great comic mileage out of the amateurish nature of rock musicians and their Spinal Tap styled pretensions: at the start of this film, Conor can’t sing, write or even play an instrument, but those trivial details sure as hell aren’t going to stop him from letting a hot chick know that he plays in a band. He subsequently attempts to put one together for the singular reason of getting into her pants, a set-up comical enough to justify this film’s existence.
Where Carney fails is in drastically overestimating, and fatally sentimentalising, rock music’s potential as a means of oh-so-serious romantic expression. Quite understandably, at the grand finale concert Conor’s audience groans when they’re informed that they’re about to hear a ‘slow one’. But Carney wants us to hear it anyway, and it’s played out in full, supposedly giving us an insight into our hero’s psyche and his romantic longing. It does no such thing; it is badly written and sung in an ingratiatingly adolescent manner. Rock ballads have almost always been painful to listen to because when musicians who can’t write, play or sing attempt to sound serious they forefront their own limitations instead of overcoming them, as playing fast and loose will allow them to do.
The film’s initial wit and cunning in illustrating the escapist nature of rock music is therefore undermined later on by the director’s misguided belief in the genre’s rich potential for emotional realism; in actual fact this feat is rare and difficult to pull off due to the pomposity it tends to entail, and it requires an enormous amount of talent to do so (see, for example, Dylan and Clapton below), which Carney simply doesn’t display in his own mediocre songwriting efforts for Sing Street. Furthermore, the film ignores the more troubling (and frequently fascinating) aspects of rock n’ roll: the fantasies we project upon it can suddenly turn dark and dangerous, misogynistic and violent (see The Rolling Stones, AC/DC, Eminem). But in the end, the most troubling aspect about this piece of fluff is that I honestly can’t tell if the script is joking when it praises Duran Duran’s bassist for being ‘funky’. I really do hope so.
Fallen Angels – Bob Dylan
Bob Dylan, to put it mildly, has never been renowned for the richness of his vocals. So it was a surprise for many last year when he released Shadows in the Night, an album full of old crooner classics from the Great American Songbook. This is a direct sequel, featuring a dozen more such classic songs from the 1930s and 40s, most of which were recorded and made famous by Frank Sinatra.
There was no need to be surprised: Dylan has always done whatever the hell he wanted right from the beginning of his career, when he famously ditched folk music in order to pursue the electric forcefulness of rock n’ roll. In recent years he has been exploring the roots of American popular music, from country to the blues, in a string of impressive and surprisingly commercially viable albums. The latest phase in this series interprets the popular standards written by Gershwin/Porter/Mercer/Berlin etc., which in their simplistic language and chord changes, nevertheless unravelling in layers of meanings upon repeated listening, heavily inspired The Beatles and therefore the rest of the 60s rock movement, including Dylan himself.
Dylan’s versions of these songs, which have been covered by literally thousands of other artists, do manage to bring a unique perspective to their generalised ruminations on love: his craggy old voice makes no attempt to hide its antiquated nature or consistent struggle to remain in tune, bringing a grand sarcasm to such lines as ‘Fairy tales can come true, it can happen to you/If you’re young at heart’. It is testament to Dylan’s trademark wit that he opens the album with these lines. The constant straining to reach the high notes and keep up with the rhythm paints the impression of a man aware of his advancing age and looking back on his former romantic glories, reliving them with a knowing twinkle in his larynx.
It’s good for a couple of spins and a chuckle then, which is all I believe Dylan intended it for, but to heap superlatives and five stars upon this album, as overexcited critics do upon every single one of the man’s releases, is to do him a disservice. Five stars would indicate that it is on a level footing with Bringing it all Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited, Blood on the Tracks, Love and Theft (to name a few), some of the greatest albums ever recorded. Fallen Angels doesn’t even come close, but that’s because it isn’t trying to. It’s content with being a doff of the cap to some of the lesser known standards of the Great American Songbook. The laid-back, easy shuffle of the countrified music is the ideal background for this concept. Worth a go it may be, but not worthy of Sinatra or Fitzgerald’s far greater subtlety.
I Still Do – Eric Clapton
The most fascinating aspect about the blues as a genre has always been the dichotomy between the frequently depressive nature of the lyrics and the primal, powerful stomp of the music. Eric Clapton, throughout his early career, pushed these contrasts to new heights in his work with Cream and Derek & the Dominos, especially in his masterpiece Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs, where the rather ordinary expressions of
unrequited love and covers of blues standards were propelled to extraordinary heights by the explosively emotional and exhilaratingly complex guitar interplay between himself and Duane Allman.
But Clapton’s solo career has shown only intermittent flashes of brilliance amidst an ocean of mediocrity, failing to push the blues any further outside of his own comfort zone. He has a tendency towards laziness, both in terms of songwriting and guitar playing, and surrounding himself with subpar musicians. Yet he can display unexpectedly manic bursts of energy, as on the excellent live album with Wynton Marsalis called Play the Blues, which was released in 2011 and comes highly recommended.
I Still Do is emblematic of his post-Layla works in that there are sudden moments of clarity of expression, but these are lost amongst an overwhelming majority of characterless genre exercises. His love for the blues comes shining through on ‘Alabama Woman Blues’ and Robert Johnson’s ‘Stones in my Passway’, the two indisputable highlights of this collection which contain all the menace and gritty power associated with that genre, elsewhere entirely absent. ‘I Will Be There’ is almost as embarrassing as his earlier ‘Wonderful Tonight’ in its fey romanticism, whilst his own compositions ‘Spiral’ and ‘Catch the Blues’ simply fail to ignite. The tepid cover of Dylan’s ‘I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine’, meanwhile, robs that work of its richness through a mismatched midtempo rock setting.
So does Clapton still have it? I Still Do he boldly declares on this album, but the accompanying music fails to offer convincing evidence for such a claim.