Once was a singular Irish film, that combined drama, themes of immigration and relationships, and music, to form what can be regarded as a fairly enrapturing experience. The end result was award success, a musical, and a lot of recognition for director John Carney, who essentially turned around and did it again with 2013’s Begin Again. Quality over quantity in terms of the number of offerings, and Carney is back to Irish locations and Irish themes three years later, with a film that draws heavily on his own background. Sing Street has been getting nearly unanimous praise from all quarters: was it as good as they say?
In the 1980’s, 15-year-old Conor (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo) is facing a lot of problems: the disintegrating marriage of his parents (Maria Doyle Kennedy, Aiden Gillian), his aimless stoner brother Brendan (Jack Reynor) and the brutal surroundings of his new CBS school. In an effort to impress the beautiful girl (Lucy Boynton) across the street from his school and escape the drudgery of 80’s Ireland, Conor forms a band with a host of other students, embarking on a musical odyssey through life, love and teenage dreams.
Sing Street is a really great film. It’s rare that a movie has the effect on me that it had, insofar as it combined a wonderful array of genres and emotional varieties, and managed to make them all work fairly seamlessly. It’s a powerfully moving film, a fantastically funny film, a deep and thought-provoking film. It is a film that will make you laugh, and might well make you cry, and maybe at the same time too.
It’s also a very Irish film, and a very Irish comedy to boot. It goes beyond the shooting locations and the cast, and more in the feel of the film and its characters. Comparisons to things like The Guard would not be inappropriate. This is a director/writer who fully grasps the Irish psyche of the time, and that comes through in the cinematography and the script. Carney could have just inundated his film with constant references to the 80’s without any thought, but this film is more a part and parcel of that era, in every bit of music, in every depressing look at the cycle of unemployment and emigration, in the absence of divorce and in the casual brutality still evident in schools. The 80’s and everything they represent for Ireland is in every molecule of this movie.
However, Sing Street is more than its setting or its ambiance, it’s also a great character journey for Conor, Walsh-Peelo, giving it absolute socks in his debut role, one of the most impressive acting performance I have ever seen from someone of his age. You can’t help but be touched deeply by the path of this awkward, somewhat repressed, but endlessly optimistic teen. Sing Street pulls no punches with its depiction of teenage life in the setting: it’s a potentially maudlin mix of cynicism, depression, positivity and idealism – but in Conor it finds a character that it can wrap it all around effectively, without losing anything with the audience. From the moment that we first meet Conor, dealing with the aftermath of another parental bust-up and being told that his private school education is over, you can’t help but see some of yourself in him at that age: a bit bumbling, a bit out of his depth in nearly everything, but still forging ahead because there is nothing else he can do.
But in order for Sing Street to work, it needs the female lead to also be on a par, and Boynton’s Raphina is. While the age difference between the characters is a bit noticeable in my opinion – they’re supposed to be within a year of each other, but in real life he’s 15 and she’s 22 – you’ll fall in love with this unlikely romantic journey as fast as Conor does with the enigmatic “model”. I say enigmatic, but Sing Street’s depiction of Raphina is more like faux-enigmatic: a modern audience will guess almost immediately that her modelling dreams are a fairy-tale she tells herself. But that’s not the point really. The point is that Conor, at the tail-end of a very bad day, throws caution to the wind and talks to this girl, and actually flirts successfully with her. It’s his sudden infatuation with the model that makes the plot endearing, and this charmingly naïve sentiment covers up any potential pitfalls in the actual depiction. Indeed, if Sing Street has a single higher point, it’s that sometimes it’s worth just going along with things and not asking too many questions.
The love story between the two blossoms out slowly, with teenage angst and teenage kicks aplenty, but it never gets dull, and it never gets insufferable. We delight in seeing Conor open up more and more, and it’s fascinating to see Raphina’s walls come down bit by bit whenever she is around “Cosmo”. The band, the titular group taking inspiration from a succession of 80’s icons, is just the method whereby this happens.
While it’s members are all good for laughs, they aren’t fantastically brilliant characters in themselves, aside from shining a light on some other aspects of 80’s Dublin, from its casual racism in regards Percy Chamburuka’s Ngig and the tenement poor in erstwhile manager/agent Darren, played by Ben Carolan. It’s, I suppose, Bono lookalike Mark McKenna as musical prodigy Eamon who is the most fun, his strange obsession with rabbits notwithstanding. You really want these kids to succeed. But everything comes back to Conor and Raphina, and their unlikely friendship that becomes something more, propelling along an already excellent narrative. Complications, misunderstandings, heartbreak, they all abound. But the endpoint in this story may not be quite what people expect.
But outside of the girl and the band, Sing Street has still more to say, through the unexpected but fantastic performance of Jack Reynor as Conor’s elder brother. Reynor proved his acting chops wholesale in What Richard Did, but it might be hard to remember that, considering his casting in Michael Bay’s Transformer series, films where opportunities to act around increasingly obnoxious amounts of CGI are painfully limited. But going almost totally against what you would perceive as his type here – Reynor screams a Chris Hemsworth-style Hollywood heartthrob action star usually – here he surrenders himself into the role of a long-haired, pot-smoking layabout, who gives out copious amounts of advice to his younger sibling while doing nothing with his life at the same time.
Brendan could just have been a throwaway character good for a comedic line here and there, but he’s so much more, gratifyingly so, in Sing Street: he’s both the gatekeeper for Conor’s evolution as a musician, but also has a great arc himself, as the audience comes to realise the aching tragedy behind Brendan’s life, most notably in a heart-wrenching monologue late-on as he attempts to explain the unique difficulties he had as a single child and his anger at seeing his opportunities slip away. His despair is tied to that of his parents, whom he and Cosmo observe occasionally like they are looking at a zoo attraction: two people who never should have gotten married, but did so out of a Catholic desire to have sex, and have now seen their lives turn into a mess.
Much revolves around the CBS school on Synge Street (somewhat based on the real CBS private school there, though the real one might not have been quite the dump it’s portrayed to be), which becomes a microchasm of religiously owned education in Ireland at the time generally. When Sing Street takes the camera to school, the film practically becomes a prison movie, with Conor as the unfortunate new inmate, mercilessly harassed and brutalised by people like the mentally unwell Barry, and also by the warden, Don Wycherley as an odious little toad named Brother Baxter. Carney treads a fine line when it comes to the Christian Brothers – sexual abuse comes up, in a crude comment by Brendan and a little inferred by Conor’s fear of a certain situation – and the director is more concerned with depicting mostly the mental abuse one suffers when under the control of such men, and when trapped in such an environment, liable to turn violent at the drop of a hat (a great early shot shows Baxter watching a schoolyard fight from on high, almost approvingly). That’s done effectively, and the audience will experience ranging emotions of unease, terror, disgust and maybe even familiarity at what life in such places was like, that hid behind such empty mottos as “Act Manly”.
Carney brings a certain, shall we say, subdued flair to the visual proceedings. The family home Conor lives in is a ramshackle place as messy as the marriage of those responsible for it, and Synge Street is suitably grim and claustrophobic, more Alcatraz than educational facility. But Dublin isn’t all grimdark, it’s also beauty: in its parks, in its bay’s, in its nearby islands and seas, the setting for some of the more traditionally romantic Conor/Raphina scenes. Even a ferry taking Irish men and women to the shores of England for work can be a thing of beauty of viewed in just the right light: Carney finds that light, and finds it for plenty of other scenes too. A dream sequence music video – complete with back-flipping Christian Brothers – is a particular visual delight.
Carney also succeeds on script duties. Sing Street has some wonderful comedy – the montage of the band coming together, Conor’s almost intentional effort at ruining romantic moments, Brendan’s pot-fuelled observations on life and “vocations” – and some well-crafted verbal drama as well. It leaves most of its real stand-out wordplay for the song lyrics of course, but there’s something fascinating in scenes where such things come together, slowly, an insight into a band’s modus operandi. Aside from that, it’s a blast from the past to hear the kind of slang employed here: it’s been a while since I experienced the word spanner used as a pejorative.
But then there is the music. If Sing Street is already a love letter to the setting or to teenage love, it’s undoubtedly a larger one to the music of the 80’s, which takes centre stage throughout as time progresses, Conor listening as his brother waxes lyrically on the likes of Duran Duran, The Jam, The Cure or M. He’s the teacher, and Conor is the class, and when “Sing Street” actually gets going, this unlikely combination of a lovesick singer, a very strange lead guitarist, a foreign keyboard player, a cowboy bassist, a thug drummer, an all too young manager and, eventually, an unhinged roadie, their music is an evolution matching the evolution of the 80’s as a musical era.
And it’s all glorious really. The band’s opening, original effort, that gets Raphina taking Conor seriously, is the Duran Duran-esque “The Riddle of the Model”, complete with some dodgy sound effects and a low quality video shot in a dingy alley with awful costumes. But it’s onwards and upwards for Sing Street from there: the film offers us such gems as “Up”, Conor’s lyrical love letter to the way that Raphina makes him feel and the “happy sad” “A Beautiful Sea”, before hitting the bigtime with the wonderfully optimistic and upbeat “Drive It Like You Stole It”, an ode to teenage idealism that comes with a wicked fantasy music video. “Girls” is a potent riposte to discovering the complications of actual relationships, “To Find You” serves as a romantic lament and “Brown Shoes” is the kind of rebellious anthem one can often associate with teenage bands. These kids can play, and Conor can sing. I also feel like I should give some props to the sole “modern” song on the soundtrack – that is, not from the 80’s, and not sung by the titular band – in Adam Levine’s unexpected but endearing “Go Now”, which plays over the film’s final moments, a sort of 2016 take on the same sentiment being expressed on the very 80’s “Drive It Like You Stole It”.
That ending is one that I feel will divide a lot of audiences, and is certainly eye-rolling territory. No spoilers here, but it won’t come as a big surprise to see the film’s final act revolve around the big gig that could make or break Sing Street, and a “Will They, Won’t They” for Conor/Raphina, though it might be better described as a “Can They, Should They?”. But its beyond that that I could foresee some derision, as Sing Street’s lead member puts the message of one of his songs into practise in an extreme way:
“This is your life
You can do anything
You got to grab the wheel and own it
And drive it like you stole it”
Idealistic doesn’t begin to cover it, and the final moments of Sing Street seem more heavily allegorical than the rest of the film to me, not to be taken completely seriously. I enjoyed it a lot, it seemed like an affirmation of everything the film had been trying to convey about certain characters up to that point, but I can certainly imagine it rubbing others up the wrong way.
In conclusion then, Sing Street is, as of now, the best film I have seen this year. The story is a really fantastic tale of self-actualisation, young love and making the best of what you have without falling into mundanity. The performances are strong from the principal cast members, the script is great and the film looks really well put together. And, perhaps most importantly considering, the music is fantastic, with one of the most memorable soundtracks of recent years. This film is a credit to its inspiration, and to the Irish film industry. It’s as good or better than Once, and its director deserves as many plaudits. It’s a celebration of possibility, and imbued with just the right amount of bittersweetness. I’m sure a stage adaptation is to come at some point, and I eagerly await Carney’s next musical endeavour. Highly recommended.
(All images are copyright of The Weinstein Company).