With a spring in his step, director John Carney again explores the relationship between man and music in Sing Street, an ‘80s-set ode to high school jam bands and their eternal pursuit of the opposite sex via after school song-smithing and carefully tousled hair. Once and Begin Again, Carney’s previous almost-musicals, were touching and enjoyable enough, but Sing Street is his most red-blooded artistic statement yet, with dynamic visuals that catch the eye as much as the new-wavey tunes catch the ear.
Carney’s gift is his ability to celebrate life’s disasters as much as its glories, and while Sing Street may be his most winsome, joyful effort yet, it isn’t shy about putting its hero through hard times. When we meet teenage Dubliner Conor (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo), he’s strumming on his acoustic in an attempt to drown out the screaming match his mom (Maria Doyle Kennedy) and dad (Aidan Gillen) are having down the hall. As if his parents’ marital rift isn’t hard enough to swallow, things get worse when they tell him that, due to household budgetary cutbacks, they’ll be transferring him to the stuffy Catholic school in town, Synge Street.
Conor’s new school is as cold and uninviting as his burnout older brother, Brendan (Jack Reynor), warned: packs of unrelenting bullies prowl the dingy halls, and the faculty members are even worse (Conor can’t afford to buy black shoes to comply with school policy, so he’s forced to hand over his shoes and walk around campus in socks). Conor’s living a grey-skied nightmare both at home and at school, but his spirits are given a jolt when he spies a pretty girl named Raphina (Lucy Boynton).
Conor initiates some nervous chatter, finding out that Raphina’s got dreams of becoming a model in London. Quick on his feet, he offers her a starring role in his band’s music video. Problem is, he’s got no band and no means whatsoever of making said video.
The ensuing scramble to whip up band members and write their little tunes is a treat, tapping into the same rag-tag underdog appeal as School of Rock and The Mighty Ducks. The ball gets rolling when a red-haired runt from school agrees to be the band’s manager, and after knocking on a few doors, they form a little quintet that includes a pair of brothers, a multi-instrumentalist nerd prodigy, and a black keyboardist because, well, they wanted a black guy in the band to give them a certain “edge.” Before they know it, they’ve thrown together a decent tune, some silly Halloween-store costumes, and procured a clunky VHS camera (ah, the memories). Suddenly, Conor’s ready to make good on his promise to Raphina.
Walsh-Peelo and Boynton both have a certain onscreen magnetism individually, but the attraction doesn’t feel as strong between them as a pair. That’s not to say there’s no chemistry to be found; they seem to genuinely enjoy each others’ company and no scenes feel particularly awkward or forced. But a little more electricity between them would have been just the thing to kick the film up to eleven.
Reynor steals the show with a performance that gains dimension with each scene he’s in. There’s surprising level depth of depth to Conor as well, though Raphina falls squarely into the mentally-ill, broody girl box that’s become so familiar following the deluge of Sundance-friendly indie romance flicks we’ve been riding for the past several years.
The film’s a veritable love letter to the ‘80s, with Carney celebrating bands like Duran Duran, Hall & Oats and The Cure via a musical spirit quest that Conor embarks on with the guidance of Brendan, whose extensive collection of LPs helps shape the band’s sound. Those who grew up in the ‘80s will glean the most enjoyment from Conor’s Brit-pop love affair; a running gag sees him change up his look to match whatever band he’s caught up in at the moment (his take on the Robert Smith sad-goth-clown look is my favorite).
As always, for Carney, the music is key. The sounds of the time – spacey synths, lovelorn vocals, glistening guitar riffs – are all over the film’s fantastic original songs, each catchier than the last. As in Once and Begin Again, Carney switches over to a sort of hyper-reality during the musical numbers, with the colorful visuals often reflecting Conor’s current state of mind.
Sentimentality and optimism aren’t easy to pull off in an age where people don’t appreciate kids’ movies unless they’re laced with heartbreak and “mature themes,” but Carney strikes an almost-perfect balance of light and dark. Themes of abandonment, divorce, squandered potential, addiction and generational oppression run throughout, and through them, we get a sense of urgency and stakes.
Carney embellishes the happy, nostalgia-driven moments to levels of cheesiness we haven’t seen regularly since the ‘90s, but the real key to Sing Street’s success is that Conor’s angst and frustration are treated with just as much care and creativity.
Sing Street is a crowd-pleasing, glittery '80s nostalgia trip, and John Carney's most red-blooded effort yet.