John Carney is a write/director most known for the 2007 musical film Once. That movie, and in particular its soundtrack, captured a significant audience that year. The soundtrack is universally adored and made many year-end lists. In 2014 he made Begin Again, which was an honorable mention for me at the end of the year and also featured an outstanding soundtrack. Now he has made Sing Street, another film centered around music and a film that feels a bit more personal and a little autobiographical.
Growing up in a struggling, middle class family in mid-80s Dublin, Conor (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo) is told by his parents (Aiden Gillen, Maria Doyle Kennedy) that he has to transfer from the expensive school he had been attending to the Synge Street Christian Brothers School, a free school. Almost immediately he gets off on the wrong foot with the school bully, Barry (Ian Kenny) and the principal, Br. Baxter (Don Wycherley). All of these problems quickly fade into the background when he sees Raphina (Lucy Boynton), a girl who lives in the all-girls orphanage across the street who aspires to be a model. He tells her he is in a budding band and needs her for his music video. When she agrees, he quickly sets about forming a band with Darren (Ben Carolan), the one student he has become acquainted with. Darren agrees to be the band manager and they add a multi-instrumentalist named Eamon (Mark McKenna) to their ranks and a few other students to fill out the band, appropriately named Sing Street after their school. Conor spends the school year going through various musical phases that reflect the popular music of the moment, as family life slowly crumbles around him and a hint of a relationship blossoms with Raphina.
As Carney himself would have been about Conor’s age at about the time this film is set in, and that he attended Synge Street in real life, it has the inherent feel of having at least some aspect of biographical content, even though I don’t know much about his background. There is a lot of care and personal touch to the characters that populate the film, which is also a compliment to the actors as well. Jack Reynor portrays Conor’s older brother Brendan, a college dropout now living back at home with zero motivation who feels like he peaked in high school and is unable to recapture his mojo. Conor gets a lot of his musical influences from his brother’s tastes, and it’s also Brendan who encourages him to not just cover songs but to write his own songs.
The film also captures the spirit of the time, and the novelty of the music video, which plays an essential role in the film. Even as the family dynamic is breaking down between their parents, and their father struggles to find a job, the family congregates around the television on what seems like a nightly basis to watch the latest music videos. It speaks to the moment and how the music video craze injected new life into music and expanded the possibilities of what could be with music as performance art.
It’s through the music and the music videos that Conor absorbs that result in his growth over the course of the film. We see a progression from being a bit of a shy and quiet teenager to slowly but surely coming into his own and finding his voice, literally and figuratively. Creating songs and music videos becomes his expression in a difficult period; they’re an outlet for him to pour into. And the influences of the various bands, from Duran Duran to Hall & Oates to The Cure is a real treat to watch the progression of attire that Conor wears over the course of the year, even make-up which results in a tense scene with the principal.
Of course, though all of it, Raphina remains a guiding inspiration to his songs and his videos. She is a character who reminds me a bit of Penny Lane in Almost Famous, only with less of a wild streak to her. The way she presents herself to the world, and initially to Conor, of a model-in-waiting, masks a certain degree of hurt and insecurity underneath due to her circumstance and past. She puts on an air of mystique, but she is not really all that mysterious, just mysterious enough to a teenage boy in 1980s Dublin to be his muse.
What really makes the film work, though, is that the music is genuine good and catchy and of a piece with its time. Everything would fall apart if the music wasn’t up to par. But Carney, along with some co-writing and composing from 80s vet Gary Clark, Glenn Hansard, and Adam Levine, nails the soundtrack and the original songs and even makes the videos look like amateur attempts at music videos that aspiring teenagers in a band would have done back in the 80s. As someone who was born in the 80s but never really got into music until the 90s and doesn’t particularly care for 80s music in general, even I found the music catchy.
Good music, good acting, and a good coming of age story. There’s a lot to love about Sing Street. It’s a film that is full of heart. It understands its characters as well as the time and place it is set in. It blends the home life, the school life, and the band life very well. And at the center of it all is a genuinely sweet burgeoning romance. Generally speaking, I’m not a fan of musicals, and while Sing Street is not an out and out musical, it is a musical drama with a significant amount of musical numbers and the soundtrack is key to the story. I missed its run in the theaters. I was very happy I caught up on it on blu-ray. I thoroughly enjoyed it.
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars