Sing Street (2016) – Movie Review
Directed by: John Carney
Written by: John Carney
Starring: Ferdia Walsh-Peelo, Lucy Boynton, Jack Reynor, Mark McKenna & Ben Carolan
Music: Gary Clark
Release Date: May 20th 2016
Hasn’t the Irish film industry been pretty wonderful over the past few years?
Don’t get me wrong, it’s always been pretty wonderful but in recent years with the rise of independent cinema in the mainstream as well as the advent of digital distribution plus on-demand screening means that more Irish films have been able to get attention. We’ve also had the rise of legitimate auteurs such as Lenny Abrahamson with ‘Frank‘ and ‘Room‘ as well as Tomm Moore with ‘The Secret of Kells‘ and ‘Song of the Sea‘.
Another one of these directors is John Carney who created the successful TV series “Bachelors Walk” and has made a niche for himself in the Irish music romance-movie department. It’s very niche, but it’s a niche worth having with output like ‘Once‘ and ‘Begin Again‘ both being met with great critical acclaim with both films actually being nominated for “Best Original Song” at the Oscars (with ‘Once‘ winning for “Falling Slowly”). Carney is now following those movies with something a bit smaller scale with an Irish-based coming-of-age story. Can Carney hit another sweet note in his filmography or has his career finally given a dull note?
It’s the mid 1980s in Dublin. Due to the recession resulting in massive unemployment and emigration, Conor (Walsh-Peelo) is forced to leave his private school and start attending a free state-school. When there, Conor finds it difficult to adjust but his spirits brighten when he meets model Raphina (Boynton) who he invites to be a model in a music video for his band, which she accepts. Now Conor needs to actually put a band together. Enlisting the help of his new friend Darren (Carolan) to manage the band, the multi-instrumentalist Eamon (McKenna) and his music-loving older brother Brendan (Reynor), Conor must put together a great band to impress Raphina whilst also finding his own identity as he grows into manhood.
‘Sing Street‘, first and foremost, is a movie about growing up and it’s clearly a story that feels very personal to director John Carney’s heart. Born in Dublin in 1972, Carney would have been around the same age as our protagonist Conor so it’s hard to view scenes of Conor and his family watching “Top of the Pops” in their living room, being inspired by the latest pop music and NOT imagine that Carney is re-creating his childhood on the big screen. Even if it’s not auto-biographical, Carney manages to capture the unique viewpoint of school-boys growing up in a heavily forceful, masculine environment and that type of dynamic feels incredibly human and genuine.
Conor and his group of friends/band-members in their group “Sing Street” are a fun cast of characters and all of the actors have chemistry together. Not only that, but they produce legitimately good music. They initially do covers, but a stern talking-to from Conor’s older brother Brendan convinces them that they need to write their own songs and make their own unique music videos (inspired by the videos they see on TV). Even though they’re a young band just starting out and their music probably isn’t that good, the way the soundscape is presented and how the videos are shot allow the audience to know how amazing this music sounds to the boys. There’s a difference in clarity between recording in your friend’s living room as his mum brings cups of tea and snacks into your session and how it actually sounds on tape listening to it back and ‘Sing Street‘ gives the audience the same sense of elation that the band feels.
The musical influence also seeps its way out of the recording sessions and music video filming as the band arrives to school every week dressed based on what band was big that week on “Top of the Pops” with different hairstyles and make-up to boot. Not only are these boys trying to find their own musical style, but they’re also trying to find themselves and are able to express themselves through their music in order to deal with potential problems at home. That last point feels a bit too understated from Conor’s perspective to feel fully formed as the movie opens with suggestions that the marriage between Conor’s parents is falling apart and then around 70 minutes later it turns out they’re getting a divorce. There’s not much pay-off or build-up because the audience have spent that entire time with Conor forming his band, talking with his brother and trying to impress Raphina so his relationship with his parents feels too distant to be invested or affected by it as a viewer.
However, the aspects that John Carney does focus on are continually engaging such as the love story between Conor and Raphina with the two having real chemistry together. And because the movie is committed to portraying boyhood through the eyes of Conor and his band, it works to have Lucy Boynton portray Raphina as a near-ethereal presence that the younger boys can’t quite comprehend just yet. Raphina may have the surface-level trappings of a manic-pixie-dream-girl but due to the age of the main characters this is one of those rare justified examples. Not to mention that her characterisation in the latter-half of the movie does a lot to humanise and ground her.
But the most compelling, yet understated relationship in ‘Sing Street‘ is the one between Conor and Brendan and I almost feel bad talking about it because it’s not until the closing moments of the movie that the film tips its hand to reveal that and all the pieces start to fit into place. The two aren’t as much brothers as they are student and teacher as Brendan’s metal well-being seems to have been eroded away by living in his environment. I won’t give away the rest of the themes here but the way Brendan challenges and interprets his responsibility as an older brother is something else. However, while I know that ‘Sing Street‘ is a movie aimed primarily at teenage boys or guys in their 30s and 40s who remember being teenage boys, Conor seems to have zero familial relationship with his Sister…I wanna say Ann? She gets so little screentime I didn’t even catch her name.
Incidentally, I know that the relationship between the parents and the sister is given the bare minimum in order to draw more attention to Conor’s kinship with his band and new potential girlfriend, but when the family angle becomes more important later on in the film, it feels like it could have been built up much more. Thankfully, the camaraderie between Conor and his band feels palpable, with all the youngsters giving great performances. Aside from Conor who, despite his age, manages to effectively carry the enterprise, special mention must be given to the multi-talented, rabbit-loving Eamon played by Mark McKenna. There are other band members like their token black kid because of course he can play an instrument, (a joke “South Park” did years ago, though the face-paint gag is a killer) and a bassist and drummer duo but they quickly fall into the background which is a bit of a shame.
It’s tough to boil down exactly what about ‘Sing Street‘ works as it just kinda…is. It’s balancing a lot of ideas and different tones as we get harrowing moments of kitchen-sink 80s drama and also elaborate fantasy/song sequences with Gary Clark’s stellar original music, yet it does hold together and work like gangbusters. And at its core we have a genuine love-story and a sincere, semi-autobiographical narrative about growing up and finding yourself or clearing a path for someone else’s future. It’s heavy stuff (not the least of which seeing a strict headmaster almost drown Conor in a sink full of water to wash make-up off his face) but the light-humour helps to make it easier viewing.
In terms of ‘Sing Street‘s aesthetic, it has a timeless, low-budget feel to it, almost akin to movies like ‘The Full Monty‘ and ‘Billy Elliot‘ which were very much movies of their time, yet still aged very well thanks to their down-to-earth settings/characters and strong use of location-filming and the movie doesn’t skimp on the details when it comes to the shabby, boy-band costumes and musical influences the Sing Street band come up with over the course of the film. The movie’s not afraid to get down and dirty and show the ugly side of boyhood, but also the imagination and idealism that comes from being that age.
The music, despite being written by teenagers (and nothing that teenagers write musically is any good), is awesome and I can imagine the soundtrack alone for this movie (both the original songs and the extensive 80s catalogue of hits from A-Ha, The Cure, Spandau Ballet, The Jam, Genesis and more) becoming an underground hit.
‘Sing Street‘ feels like concentrated sincerity as it presents an earnest and optimistic view of growing up through music and using it to find your own identity. It’s also a story about brothers, love, friendship, good music etc. and while some of those themes do feel like they get buried in the mix (music pun. HA!) it still feels like a compelling whole because the stuff it gets right, it gets absolutely right, from the striking, original soundtrack, the heartfelt love story, the relationship between Conor and his brother and more. It doesn’t just share aesthetic similarities with the likes of ‘The Full Monty‘ and ‘Billy Elliot‘ as I believe it will go down as a modern, quiet classic in the common-people, kitchen-sink genre for years to come.
I give ‘Sing Street‘ 4 stars out of 5.
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Posted: 22nd Jun 16