Sing Street (2016)

Boy meets girl, girl unimpressed, boy starts band

As we approach an era where eighties kids (and teenagers) inch more towards that middle age mark, it’s not surprising to see filmmakers who grew up in the decade of decadence ready to recall their formative years. Just recently, Richard Linklater gave us a faithful recreation of the retro landscape with his sports jock comedy Everybody Wants Some!! (2016) while the Netflix sensation Stranger Things (2016) found its audience by tapping into that sense of wonder many of us felt way back when, watching (and re-watching) Steven Spielberg’s Goonies (1985) or Joe Dante’s Gremlins (1984) on our worn and withered VHS tapes.

The latest (and possibly greatest) in a long line of pictures, which keep on reminding us that the eighties aren’t dead, is director John Carney’s Sing Street. Surveying Carney’s music-centered movies — Once (2007) and Begin Again (2013) in particular — the origins of his musical filmography can be traced all the way back to his early adolescent life, his days living in Dublin in the 1980s serving as the inspiration for this, his latest offering, Sing Street: a doting ode to life, love and the music that shaped the fortysomething musician/ filmmaker, this wonderfully constructed coming-of-age story ringing true, even in today’s vastly different world.

There are no elevators to success. You'll have to take the stairs.
There are no elevators to success. You’ll have to take the stairs.

It’s 1985, south inner city Dublin, and the Lalor family are having some problems. Patriarch Robert (Aidan Gillen) is struggling financially, his architecture practice on the brink of collapse and his marriage to Penny (Maria Doyle Kennedy) at its tether. Feeling the brunt of the economic strain is 14-year-old Conor Lalor (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo). See, while his older brother, Brendan (Jack Reynor), has conveniently dropped out of college, Conor is — in order to save some money — pulled out from his posh Jesuit school and enrolled into a tough (but free) Christian Brother’s institution named Synge Street. Tormented by bullies and the principal, Br. Baxter (Don Wycherley), over the school’s regulation black shoes (which his parents can’t afford), Conor finds solace by watching Top of the Pops with music buff bro, where Duran Duran’s ‘Rio’ opens his eyes to the medium’s artistic virtues.

One day, however, Conor catches a glimpse of a beautiful denim-clad lass, one or two years older than him, named Raphina (Lucy Boynton), whom he learns is a model. In order to grab her attention (and keep it) he introduces himself and impulsively asks her to star in his band’s newest music video. Problem is, Conor doesn’t have a band! Thus, with the aid of his only friend, Darren (Ben Carolan), Conor quickly smacks one together, mustering up a bunch of ragtag musicians including multi-instrumentalist and rabbit lover Eamon (Mark McKenna) and a young keyboard player by the name of Ngig (Percy Chamburuka).

I wanna see you strut
I wanna see you strut

After recording a few demos Conor realizes that his band ‘Sing Street’ mightn’t be good enough to keep Raphina’s attention and therefore needs to get better. This is where Conor’s brother Brendan jumps in — sure, he can’t play anything but this guy’s a self-made music sage who understands the art’s enormous draw along with its many gears and cogs. So, with the help of his bro, Conor (who now goes by the name of Cosmo) and his iffy group begin to forge their own identity, coming together as a fully-fledged unit. But will this be enough to keep the girl of his dreams by his side, a girl who just so happens to have starry-eyed aspirations of her own?

At its core, Sing Street is a very ‘human’ film insomuch as it deals with relatable notions of family, rebellion, companionship, affection, insecurity and escape. Although the eighties saturated backdrop adds a winning melody to the flick, in terms of the fashion, sounds and technology (the band shoot their music videos with an old fashioned camcorder), this aesthetic simply serves as a backdrop for Carney to tell an honest, genuine story. Behind all the melodies and era specific details lies a warm, truthful and wide-eyed look at what it means to grow up, find like-minded friends, fall in love and ultimately discover your passion.

With that said, don’t let me sell its soundtrack short as ‘music’ is Sing Street’s lifeblood, its rhythm and tempo. Mixing classic hits from The Cure, A-Ha and Hall & Oats alongside some outstanding (and authentic sounding) original songs, Sing Street uses its lyrics to startling effect — every track is essential and has something to offer the narrative.

Big Hair, Don't Care.
Big Hair, Don’t Care.

The cast of unknowns is terrific too, each and every member delivering a chart topping performance. Ferdia Walsh-Peelo is simply amazing as Conor (it’s hard to believe that Sing Street is his first ever acting job), Walsh-Peelo showcasing an impressive amount of diversity — starting out as an innocent kid (who believes that music is his ticket outta Dublin and into Raphina’s world), and later maturing into a confident, self-assured young man right in front of the audience’s very eyes. Newcomer Mark McKenna also stands out as Eamon, an outcast whom Conor forms a songwriting connection with, as does the smashing Lucy Boynton, Ballet Shoes (2007), the fetching 22-year-old who’s forced to run the gamut of emotions as the gorgeous yet complicated Raphina.

Pivotal to the film’s success, however, is Jack Reynor, A Royal Night Out (2015), portraying Conor’s weed smoking slacker brother (who has a record collection to die for), Brendan — his character aiding our hero even at the expense of realizing his own failures. It’s a remarkable feat, one that’s worthy of praise. It could also be argued that he’s the film’s most important player as it’s Brendan who, not only coaches and mentors our protagonist through the murky waters of music-making (we see Conor try on a number of different identities and sounds), but shows him how to live out his life to the fullest. It’s Brendan’s advice that furthers the journey and his encouragement that helps Conor fight against the various obstacles the come his way. Furthermore, Reynor and Walsh-Peelo exhibit one of the best brotherly bonds ever committed to screen, the pair sharing an indisputable sibling dynamic with each other and their older bookworm sister Ann, played by Kelly Thornton.

Band of Brothers
Band of Brothers

Sure, Sing Street isn’t without its moments of fairytale-like optimism but these exist in a real world setting where things doesn’t always align with people’s hopes and dreams — the film’s most upbeat scene (and arguably its saddest), which sees Conor record the music video for ‘Drive It Like You Stole It,’ is perhaps the best example of this. Sing Street finishes with a strong dedication from writer-director John Carney; one that’s never stressed or overly evident throughout proceedings and it’s because of this underlining devotion that the film truly soars. An evocative time capsule — the flick even smells like it was made in the eighties — Sing Street is gorgeously constructed, superbly acted and stands out as one of the year’s very best. Absolutely marvelous.

5 / 5 – Don’t Miss!

Reviewed by Mr. Movie

Sing Street is released through Roadshow Entertainment Australia