John Carney’s latest has much in common with two of his earlier films, Once and Begin Again, both of which feature songwriters and identify the unifying, uplifting power of music. Sing Street – an upbeat, endearing tale of a teenage outcast in 1980s Dublin who forms a band at school – is his best yet; if nothing else it’ll win the award for the film that tries the hardest to put a smile on your face in 2016, and if you can ignore some of its cornier elements it’ll succeed in doing just that. Ferdia Walsh-Peelo stars as Conor, a young lad whose parents (Aiden Gillen, Maria Doyle Kennedy) are in the process of splitting up, their marriage disintegrating due to an extra-marital affair and concerns about finances; to save money Conor is moved from his middle-class Jesuit school to the brutal and notorious Christian Brothers school in Syng Street, where he quickly attracts the attention of a bully and the fearsome headmaster (Don Wycherley). Conor’s also shocked by the strict regime in place at Syng Street and instantly realises that he doesn’t fit in, but he does at least spot a girl named Raphina (Lucy Boynton) opposite the school gates, and sets about wooing her by asking her to act as a model in a video for his band. There are two problems, however: Conor doesn’t actually have a band, and Raphina already has a boyfriend (though as Conor’s older brother Brendan (Jack Reynor) attests when he discovers some valuable information about the relationship in question: ‘no woman can ever love a man who listens to Phil Collins’).
The film’s at its best when it focuses on the band that Conor puts together, which is named Sing Street after the school they all attend. They’re a bunch of likeable misfits who start off shakily but quickly improve, driven partly by Conor’s will and the talents of co-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Eamon (a well-judged performance by Mark McKenna). Conor recruits four other members in total with the help of the band’s young manager (Ben Carolan), and watching them rehearse, converse, respond to pop trends and make lo-fi DIY music videos is a real joy; I was never in a band as a teenager but it seems pretty much anyone who was that has seen Sing Street has effusively praised its writer-director for his ability to nail the experience, from the absurdities and the awkwardness to the sense of hope and the sudden burst of creativity experienced by many. This is of course the era of MTV, and before long the band set about recording their first promo video, for a hilariously on-point song called The Riddle Of The Model. To Raphina’s amusement – and the audience’s – the band members perform in an array of different costumes which makes them look like a cross between Elvis Costello And The Attractions, Adam And The Ants and The Village People. Weirdly they sound a little bit like the Franz Ferdinand/Sparks collaboration FFS, and Conor proudly declares ‘We’re futurists!’ to anyone who asks.
Sing Street is almost as entertaining when Carney highlights the influence of Top Of The Pops – and some of the acts it featured – on families and teenagers in the 1980s. The entire family gathers before the TV for the show and Duran Duran’s video for Rio is heralded as ‘the future’ by Conor and Brendanl; dad, meanwhile, grumbles about miming performers and The Beatles in the background. Soon enough Conor is sporting a Simon Le Bon-style hairdo at school, which morphs into a Robert Smith-style get-up when Brendan introduces his younger brother to The Cure; later Spandau Ballet appear on TV and straight away the band members and other schoolkids are seen sporting oversized pastel jackets that presumably belong to older brothers or fathers. Developing in tandem with the band and its image is the burgeoning romance between Conor and Raphina; it’s a little by-the-book, I suppose, but rather sweet and I liked the way it wittily references the same Duran Duran video at the end.
It’s mostly very uplifting – think of a cross between The Commitments and We Are The Best!, though I’ve seen School Of Rock mentioned too – but Carney’s a savvy operator and he’s aware that all the best pop music reflects the sadness in life, too. He also knows that it works as a medium because of the escape that it offers. For all Brendan’s bluster in his own bedroom it quickly transpires that he has his own problems, while also within the family home Conor’s mum and dad seem to be unable to break out of their own respective fugs. In fact the film portrays a world in which nearly all of the parents are splitting up, or have already divorced, or have separated due to other circumstances (e.g. a prison sentence), or who beat up their children and turn them into playground bullies in doing so. Pop music is presented throughout as a means of escaping these problems. Meanwhile at school Conor is abused by the headteacher, another adult whose actions explain why some of the pupils have developed certain characteristics and behavioural patterns. The film doesn’t dwell on the darker subject matter, but it’s clear that Carney has thought about variations in tone and there’s a nice balance struck between upbeat, funny band moments, teenage growing pains and the more serious material. The creation of this equilibrium feels like it has been a forced at times – there’s a sympathetic and encouraging art teacher to cancel out the negativity of the headteacher, for example – but overall I think the director does a decent job of mixing downbeat social realism with the flights of fancy and comedy. It’s a crowd-pleaser, it has a lot of heart, and although it’s fairly predictable I was won over within five minutes.
Directed by: John Carney.
Written by: John Carney.
Starring: Ferdia Walsh-Peelo, Lucy Boynton, Jack Reynor, Aiden Gillen, Maria Doyle Kennedy, Kelly Thornton, Ben Carolan, Mark McKenna, Percy Chamburuka, Conor Hamilton, Karl Rice, Ian Kennedy, Don Wycherly.
Cinematography: Yaron Orbach.
Editing: Andrew Marcus, Julian Ulrichs.
Music: Gary Clark, Various.
Running Time: 105 minutes.