Riding a killer soundtrack and endearing teenage performances, Sing Street makes a joyous capper to John Carney’s thematic trilogy.
Rock and roll is a risk. You *risk* being ridiculed.
Many of us have been here: you’re young, you have a modicum of musical ability, and the only way to get the attention of someone of the opposite sex is to impress them with your talent as quickly as possible. Your band is probably terrible, your songs are rip-offs of other songs (if they’re original at all), and your gigs are poorly attended, but if you can just get her to show up, just once, it will all be worth it. Or, so you think.
This is the predicament 15-year-old Conor (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo) finds himself in at the beginning of Sing Street, the latest musical fable from Once and Begin Again director John Carney. We first meet Conor in his bedroom, noodling on his guitar as his parents argue outside, turning their shouts into jokey song lyrics. It’s 1985 in Dublin, and Conor’s family is under strain from all directions; not only are Mom and Dad (Maria Doyle Kennedy and Aidan Gillan) on the verge of divorce, the economic downturn forces them to move Conor to a different, more hardscrabble school. He has no friends (the campus bully threatens him with a slingshot within hours); no real prospects, and the cruel headmaster’s top priority seems to be the dress code.
But what he does have is confidence, enough to get the number of the girl across the street under the pretense of featuring in a music video for a band that does not yet exist. All Conor knows about the mysterious Raphina (a luminous Lucy Boynton) is that she’s an aspiring model with a cool older boyfriend, but this is impetus enough to create Sing Street, the fictional New Wave group at the center of the film. With the assistance of self-proclaimed “business adviser” Darren (Ben Carolan), Conor sets to it, rounding up a group of kindred spirits with ease bordering on fantasy logic. But that isn’t necessarily a bad thing when it’s executed with as much spirit and earnestness as the film’s protagonist himself possesses.
It’s also the most overtly biographical of Carney’s films; where Once served best as a spotlight for former bandmate Glen Hansard, and Begin Again was a more straightforward industry tale, Sing Street brings the director back to his roots at the real Synge Street (get it?) Christian Brothers School. Though it follows the well-worn path laid by The Commitments, We Are the Best!, and countless other films, what sets Sing Street apart are its two strongest elements: its young cast of unknowns, and its authentic, earworm-y original soundtrack.
I wasn’t blessed with songwriting ability, but I’ve had my opportunity to hitch my wagon to many a rising star, hoping to bask in the afterglow. I would play drums. I would sing a little. Little ever came of it for me, which I saw as my own fault, but I always believed in the music I was playing. You have to, or else why are you doing it?
There were enough moments along the way, though, where the act of spontaneous creation — whether on a stage or in someone’s cramped den — justified it all. The exhilaration that comes from finding yourself in the music is something that Sing Street perfectly captures. Watching Conor and his songwriting partner, Eamon (Mark McKenna, who we learn really puts the multi– in multi-instrumentalist in a whimsical early montage) collaborate, building off of each other’s ideas and riffs, it’s impossible not to feel a vicarious thrill. And no, there’s no logical explanation for how the band gets so good so quickly (or how Darren, who can barely work a camera, manages to edit a music video in the span of an afternoon), but that’s a manifestation of the film’s own point-of-view: when you’re young, don’t you think everything you create is objectively great?
Conor cutely labels their band as “Futurist,” but he doesn’t really understand at first what that means — it’s not enough to just be “inspired” by Duran Duran or The Cure, as Conor’s brother Brendan counsels him. (Brendan is played with warmth and humor by Jack Reynor; picture an Irish Chris Pratt by way of Lester Bangs.) You have to add something to the musical conversation, push it forward. As Conor searches for his own identity, pouring his heart out into his lyrics and changing his entire fashion style with every record he listens to (sometimes with disastrous results), the similarly lost Raphina finds herself drawn into his world.
It helps, of course, that the music is genuinely fantastic. Carney has a direct hand in that too, as well as legendary composer/producer Gary Clark; Sing Street’s songs feel like they not only would have been written in 1985, but that they would have been hits — especially the insanely catchy anthem “Drive It Like You Stole It.” While the instrumentation on the recording is handled by the professionals (though the cast sells it well on screen), the preternaturally gifted Walsh-Peelo really sings lead on every track, and exhibits dynamic stage presence at the film’s rousing climax.
Carney doesn’t have the flashiest directorial style, and his storytelling is a little top-heavy (like with Begin Again, a little character development outside of the three leads would have been helpful), but he deeply understands the artist’s heart. I was particularly moved by Brendan, the aimless older brother who let circumstances derail his own dreams and sees encouraging Conor’s as a chance to make up for it. It’s that relationship that gives the film its pulse (“Dedicated to all brothers,” reads a card at the end), and the rest is just icing on what is Carney’s most satisfying and complete film yet.