Director: John Carney
Starring: Ferdia Walsh-Peelo, Lucy Boynton, Jack Reynor, Mark McKenna, Ben Carolan, Ian Kenny, Aiden Gillen, Maria Doyle Kennedy
Every year I seem to come across one little movie which compels me to proselytise, a little gem of a film that makes me want to tell the world, because it is a film that deserves to be seen more than it will be. In 2015 it was Me and Earl and the Dying Girl. In 2014 it was Calvary. This year it looks like that film is John Carney’s nostalgic musical Sing Street.
Carney takes us back to Dublin in 1985. Fifteen-year-old Conor Lawler’s (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo) parents have been forced to pull him out of the expensive Jesuit School he has been attending and enroll him in the working class Christian Brothers boys school, Synge Street. One day Conor meets Raphina, a young model who lives in the girls’ home across the road from the school, and, in a moment of improvisation, asks her to star in a music video for his band. Expect he doesn’t have a band. So now he needs one. Conor takes a crash course in rock and roll from his older brother Brendan (Jack Reynor), and with the help of schoolyard entrepreneur Darren (Ben Carolan) and musical prodigy Eamon (Mark McKenna), starts a band, which they call Sing Street.
Irish writer-director John Carney is not exactly Vincente Minnelli, Bob Fosse or Busby Berkeley when it comes to the visual realisation of his musicals, but by following up Once and Begin Again with Sing Street he is none the less establishing himself as the most significant new voice to have emerged in the movie musical for decades. Starting with the micro-budget indie Once, Carney has shown a commitment to his theme – that music has the power to lift people up and to bring people together. It is a theme that has remained present even has the films have become increasingly slick. He doesn’t make the type of musicals where people spontaneously break into song and dance to reveal their innermost feelings (known as the ‘integrated musical’), but instead uses the ‘backstage musical’ form, in which the story concerns the putting on of a show or concert, so all of the songs exist as performances within the story world. It is a more believably real world form of musical. Sing Street, however, blends the two forms, as Conor draws on his own life in writing the songs for the band, and they therefore give insight his emotional world.
For Sing Street Carney has teamed up with Gary Clark, former front man of the 1980s Scottish pop band Danny Wilson, to write a series of fantastic songs that feel straight out of the era. You need to suspend your disbelief at just how good this newly formed band is, but this movie is all about wish-fulfillment and is much more concerned with the evolution of Conor’s understanding of his music than it is in watching the mechanics of a group of teenage musicians learning to play together. When someone asks Conor to describe his music he responds, “I’m a futurist. No nostalgia.” This may be true for Conor, but this fictionalised account of Carney’s teenage years in Dublin is absolutely a nostalgia film. In addition to getting swept up in the band’s music, you also get drawn into the songs of the era that Conor is introduced to by his brother. While early in the film we have a giggle as Brendan waxes lyrical about the artistic qualities of a Duran Duran music video, as the film goes on we become able to hear these songs from The Cure, Hall and Oates and The Jam anew. They become as fresh and exciting to us as they are to Conor (costume designer Tiziana Corvisieri has great fun as Conor tweaks and updates his image with each new artist Brendan introduces him to).
A guy forms a band to impress a girl. This can hardly be the first time in history that has occurred. Carney’s previous musicals have been more concerned with exploring the nature of creative collaboration between its leads than with simple romance, but here he jumps headlong into teenage love as we watch Conor fall fast and hard for this girl. Their love story is sweet and charming, but there is more to Sing Street than just simple romantic wish-fulfilment. After one of Conor’s songs makes her cry, Raphina tells him he needs to learn to make “happy-sad” music, “Your problem is you’re not happy being sad. But that’s what love is: happy-sad.” This sense of happy-sad, drawing joy out of sorrow, is reflected in the whole film. The 1980s were hard times in Dublin. We are told of the masses boarding boats for England in search of employment and opportunity that doesn’t exist at home. Home life is tough for Conor and his siblings. Their father (Aiden Gillen) has been out of work all year, their mother (Maria Doyle Kennedy) has been cut back to two days a week, and their marriage is breaking down. The film also alludes to, without deeply exploring, abusive relationships its young characters experience at school and home. The world is a hard and dark place, but out of it comes light and fun through this band and the music they make together.
While the love story forms the backbone of Sing Street, it ends with a dedication, “For brothers everywhere,” which is appropriate because the relationship between Conor and Brendan is actually the most significant in the film. Their relationship trumps the romance between Conor and Raphina and the creative collaboration between Conor and Eamon. Jack Reynor gives a scene stealing performance as the philosopher-mentor Brendan, who finds himself living vicariously through Conor’s pursuit of the girl and artistic satisfaction. In a world of missed opportunities where even a young man like Brendan feels like his moment has passed him by, Conor still has a chance to chase his dreams, and his older brother won’t let him miss it. It is a beautifully moving depiction of fraternal love.
With big laughs and great music, Sing Street is a triumphant, exuberant and joyous film which manages to be great fun while still having real heart and substance.
Review by Duncan McLean
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