Movie review: The poppy ‘Sing Street’ waxes nostalgic for the music of the ’80s
It’s a coming of age story that’s sweet and funny, with a sadness lingering in the background; the young actors are mostly unknowns; it’s a musical (sorta); the soundtrack features lots of ’80s pop songs (“Town Called Malice,” “Rio,” “Maneater”) and songs written for the film that would have been hits in the ’80s.
Are you still with me? If so, “Sing Street,” an autobiographical film from Irish writer-director John Carney (“Once”), is going to be one of your favorite moviegoing experiences of the year.
Setting it in 1985 Dublin, Carney who was a young teen there at the time, introduces 15-year-old protagonist Conor (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo) as a kid looking for some kind of escape from the reality he’s been handed. He’s in his room, trying to strum a guitar, while his parents can be heard arguing in another room. There are money problems at home, an older brother who seems aloof, a middle sister who’s hardly onscreen, and the budgetary decision to take Conor out of expensive private school and enroll him at a nearby public school. So adding to his unhappiness, he’s the “new kid” at this far rougher school, where he finds trouble with the nasty Brother Baxter and with a young bully who’s made him his new target.
Doesn’t sound very sweet and funny, does it? But this is also the time when MTV was taking hold in England, with the bands of the day regularly releasing new music videos. Conor’s brother Brandon (Jack Reynor), though often moody, is a music lover who tries to share his enthusiasm with Conor, even while their dad (Aidan Gillen) scoffs at Duran Duran on the tube, saying, “They’re not the Beatles.” And there are friends to be made at school, the first one being little Darren, who offers advice on how to avoid getting beaten up. Things get more interesting when Conor sets his eyes on 16-year-old Raphina (Lucy Boynton), to whom he gushes that he has a band and he wants her to be in their next video. When she falls for the line, he suddenly realizes he has to form a band.
There’s the film’s happy premise, and it provides a blast of buoyant energy as Conor and Darren set out to make it happen, resulting in a quintet of youngsters — Eamon (Mark McKenna) being the only one who knows much about music — who soon start calling themselves Sing Street.
Finding out that the mysterious Raphina is a model, Conor and Eamon get to work on writing and recording (on a phone machine) “The Riddle of the Model,” then lipsync to it in a back alley, catching it on film and earning a compliment from Brandon: “You’re good. Get better.”
And they do. What Carney does so well here is capture the energy of youth. “Sing Street” is the best example of this happening in a film since Catherine Hardwicke did it in “Lords of Dogtown.”
But “Sing Street” has its practically nonstop music spinning through it to make that energy even livelier. Both newcomer Walsh-Peelo and more experienced Boynton are terrific and believable as a mismatched “almost” couple, but the film’s best performance comes from Reynor as the misunderstood older brother who only wants to help Conor achieve his dream, and whose own depth of character isn’t revealed till near the end of the film.
While it eventually becomes the story of Conor steadily gaining confidence as a young man and as an artist, it also lets Carney showcase his filmmaking flash, for instance in a scene that starts with Conor on acoustic guitar and Eamon on piano, as they’re working out a new song, then having the camera pull around to show the rest of the band joining in.
The upbeat ending is a little less than realistic, but everyone watching this will be rooting for it and will gladly accept it. They’ll probably also be bouncing in their seats to the new songs “Drive It Like You Stole It” and “Brown Shoes.”
— Ed Symkus covers movies for More Content Now.
Written and directed by John Carney
With Ferdia Walsh-Peelo, Jack Reynor, Lucy Boynton, Mark McKenna