This review was originally published as part of our coverage for the South by Southwest Film Festival 2016.
Music will forever belong to the youth. It’s a source of discovery that changes, shapes, and influences identities all across the world. To date, there are few things in pop culture that are more personal or influential, which is why it’s such a vital slice of life for those who are just starting to rub their eyes. Think back to when you first heard your favorite songs and albums. How old were you? Where were you? Who were you with? Be it rock ‘n’ roll, hip-hop, Top 40, whatever, there was likely a piece of music that shook your bones and opened your mind. Director John Carney is no stranger to that feeling, having wrestled with the power of music in 2007’s Once and 2014’s Begin Again, and now he’s back with another ballad, Sing Street.
Set in Dublin circa 1985, the Irish filmmaker’s coming-of-age musical comedy-drama follows the sonic exploits of Conor (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo), a quiet 14-year-old who’s been relocated from a private institution to a rough public school after his parents fall on hard times. Almost immediately he’s slapped around by a bully, scolded by an eerie headmaster, and marginalized by his new classmates. Things turn around considerably when he meets the beautiful Raphina (Lucy Boynton), a mysterious girl who lives across the street from the school. Hell-bent on winning her heart, Conor walks right over to her and boldly asks if she’ll be in a music video for his band. She agrees, but here’s the real kicker: he doesn’t have a band.
Then again, he also doesn’t know much about music. What he knows is that he wants to play it, and that’s just enough for any musician. Fortunately for him, his older brother Brendan (Jack Reynor) not only has a wide, expansive collection of records, but the knowledge and goodwill to bestow on him. And so begins an incredibly heartfelt mentorship that fuels Conor’s own self-discovery and the formation of his band, Sing Street (a wordplay on their local Synge Street). With the help of a savvy and feisty red-haired boy named Darren (Ben Carolan), Conor finds the Mick Jones to his Joe Strummer in Eamon (Mark McKenna), and the three fill out the rest of the band with one lucky flyer and some hilarious research. It really shouldn’t be this easy.
(Interview: John Carney talks Brotherhood, Internet addiction, and writing ’80s pop)
But it is, and that’s the power of Carney’s storytelling. Things click relatively fast for Conor and his new crew, who all seemingly learn the ropes of songwriting and musicianship overnight. Yet that never registers as a problem, namely because Carney’s designed such a devastating world around them, one fraught with challenges and burdens. Every one of the kids have some sort of ugly life from which they’re racing away. Conor’s parents – The Wire‘s Aidan Gillen and The Commitments‘ Maria Doyle Kennedy, both excellent – are on the brink of divorce. The near-orphan Raphina is living in an all girls’ home, yearning to find a future in modeling in London. It’s not just failure they fear, it’s becoming their parents.
That’s a haunting and sobering thought, and Carney does a fantastic job selling that terror by both demonizing and humanizing the adults. Similar to Will McRobb and Chris Viscardi’s The Adventures of Pete and Pete, the adults are far from trustworthy, stumbling around with more problems than answers, but they’re also achingly real. As Conor and his friends are quick to point out, they’re mostly depressed alcoholics who have given up on any sort of future for themselves. While Conor and Brendan watch Duran Duran’s “Rio” video wide-eyed and slack-jawed, their father jokes: “If this is the future, then we’re all screwed, right?” There’s an ounce of dread in his humor, suggesting he already knows the answer.
Like any proficient songwriter, this bleak environment winds up informing Conor’s music, which is why he’s so dead-set on looking ahead. “I’m a futurist,” he insists. “No nostalgia.” It’s telling that no one ever rebuffs his decision. They share his plight and that’s one of the reasons why the music rolls by with ease – and it’s fucking great stuff. Sure, the songs are all permutations of whatever records Conor’s currently obsessing over, from a-ha to The Cure, but that’s what also makes them feel so genuine. In Bob Mehr’s recent autobiography of The Replacements, Trouble Boys, Paul Westerberg cites an old Richie Blackmore quote that reads, “You’re either a genius or a clever thief.” He cops to being the latter.
Most young musicians are, and that’s part of the whimsy and charm of Sing Street. Ironically, much of that pleasure derives from our own senses of nostalgia, but in the actual story it’s Conor who is seeing the future of new wave unfold ahead of him. Carney frames those magical moments with these seamless transitions that feel as if they’re all a part of one tracking shot. At one point, we watch Conor visit Eamon late one night, as the two slowly assemble a ballad, only to pan over and see the full band bring it to life. The same happens later when the band’s conceptualizing their latest music video, one that pays homage to Back to the Future, and Carney cheekily jumps from reality to Conor’s fantasies with little effort.
Although Sing Street is billed as a love story, it’s actually much deeper than that. As the credits reveal, Carney dedicates this film “for brothers everywhere,” and for good reason: the most important bond in the film isn’t between Conor and Raphina, but rather the creative alliance Conor shares with his older brother, Brendan. In the beginning, Brendan acts as a comical Kenobi, imparting biting words of wisdom: “You don’t need to know how to play! What are you? Steely Dan?” But slowly, he starts digging deeper into Conor’s psyche, and eventually his guidance turns into a tearful confession, as he pines, “You get to follow the path that I macheted.” He’s doing all this for Conor because he never did it for himself.
“You just moved in my jet stream,” Brendan concludes, nearly shaking. “But once I was a fucking jet engine.” He’s not bitter, per se, he’s just frustrated, as most of the graying characters tend to be in Sing Street. And that’s what makes the film such a rich and lush meditation on passion, on high hopes, and on the sacrifices we make for each other and those around us. It’s not just Brendan who’s left something behind, either. Midway through the film, he and Conor watch their mother enjoy a glass of wine and the afternoon sun – her daily routine. “I often wonder what she’s thinking about,” Brendan observes. In hindsight, we actually know he’s seeing himself on that porch: a weakened spirit clutching onto the little things.
Few films are ever as enjoyable and endearing as Sing Street. From its five-star ensemble cast to its unforgettable soundtrack, brimming with original works performed by Walsh-Peelo and vintage hits by The Clash, Hall and Oates, and The Jam, Carney’s latest musical masterpiece dances around with a jovial charm that’s addictive and innocent enough to revisit again and again and again. After all, one would have to be pretty goddamn cynical to not be smiling, clapping, and singing along by the end. There’s a mutual feeling of love and loss throughout the film that hits hard – damn hard – and while most of us will never experience music like Conor does here ever again, there’s always the future to sing about.