by Ken Bakely
There’s a mood which flows throughout John Carney’s Sing Street, one of energy and optimism, one which celebrates creativity and ambition with unbridled joy and passion. It is a film filled with utter confidence, as it knows precisely what it wants to do, and pursues its goals with effervescence, as fluent as the soundtrack which moves throughout. Carney is interesting to follow as a filmmaker, as he can depict dramatic realism with fair regularity, but is equally as interested in glowing, colorful idealism. This is a movie which contains several shares of both, but this otherwise clashing composure blends fairly well thanks to a thorough examination of its main character, prodding and prying to find enough commonalities and detail to allow us to follow the story from each point.
That main character is Conor (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo), a fourteen year old schoolboy living in Dublin. The year is 1985, and Ireland is suffering from a wide variety of societal and economic ills. Conor’s family, textbook lower-middle-class, consists of him, his warring parents (Aidan Gillen and Maria Doyle-Kennedy), his older brother Brendan (Jack Reynor), and his sister Ann (Kelly Thornton). Conor has been moved from the laurels of his private school life to a rough-and-tumble Catholic school, a public institution with a bitter staff and intimidating students.
And there’s a girl. She lives down the street from the school. Her name is Raphina (Lucy Boynton), she’s sixteen, and is planning to move to London and become a model. One little white lie leads to another, and Conor, in a desperate attempt to impress her, claims that he is a musician in a band. This isn’t true, of course, but now that has to change. Conor reaches out to a few friends, and they eventually come around on the idea, despite their initial musical experience being limited to nonexistent. But an enthusiasm begins to form, especially on Conor’s end. They begin to film music videos, which Raphina agrees to appear in with the hope that it will jump-start her career. There’s a kind of momentum in place now, and Conor feels as if music is providing him something to be excited about, a form of freedom from the perils of his own life. It’s exactly what he needs, and as time goes on, he begins to wonder if this could be the key to a hopeful future.
Carney’s tastes as an artist aren’t for everyone. His films, even with their often-gritty undertones, ostensibly climax with a number of energetic scenes which merge fantasy and reality. There’s a scene where Conor and his band, so named Sing Street as a pun off the name of their school (Synge Street), play an original composition in a near-empty gymnasium as part of a video shoot. Throughout the course of the sequence, Conor begins to imagine that the room has transformed into the prom from Back to the Future, complete with a cavalcade of 1950s outfits and hairstyles. Conor watches his hopes and dreams come true throughout the scene, from the smallest desires to the deepest emotional gratifications, all set to the bouncy song he’s singing. Carney films the scene with ecstatic delight, with bright pop aesthetic, from the light maroon suits that the members of the band wear, to the rainbow of period costumes donned by the attendees. He then snaps us back to reality – a grey, grungy room containing no more than a dozen people, as sunlight pokes in through dusty, smeared windows.
You’re going to watch that scene, from its start to its transition, either rolling your eyes the entire way through or filled with happiness in its heights and crushed by its end. And it’s an event indicative of Sing Street’s collective style as a film. It’s as much a part of the movie as Ferdia Walsh-Peelo’s beguiling performance is, whose evolving of Conor seems entirely natural as he moves from exhausted, nervous desperation to an expressive, outspoken young man progressively unafraid to take risks. It’s as much a part of the movie as Walsh-Peelo’s chemistry with Lucy Boynton is. The first interaction Conor has with Raphina is one where he’s terrified. She is literally above him, standing a few steps up on the stoop of her house, her Joan Jett hair and cooled-off lean to one side perfectly matching the unlit cigarette in her mouth. But sooner or later, they find their commonalities, their undesirable private lives, and they bond over their lofty dreams for the future. Walsh-Peelo and Boynton carry these conversations with a wonderful, witty knowledgeability.
A sense of 1980s nostalgia feels a bit overpressurized at times, which can feel compounded upon Carney’s flurry of diversions between a dream state and earthbound drama. Yet there’s enough scrappy entertainment from within that this problem does not overly diminish the 105 minute movie’s positive returns. As with many other Carney films, songs are more than just an addition, they’re a plot point all their own, resembling some kind of deconstructed musical. One such song, featured in that joyous prom scene, speaks of a desire to live a life fully realized, with lyrics like “This is your life / you can be anything […] you gotta put the pedal down / and drive it like you stole it.” In a way, this is reflective of Carney’s accomplishments as a whole. You can decry Sing Street’s cheesiness or head-in-the-clouds mentality all you want, but in the end, the film puts the pedal down and speeds towards its own paradise.