By Will Mann
Irish director John Carney rose to fame in 2007 with his film Once. A non-traditional musical about two struggling musicians in Dublin who start to fall in love as they produce music together, Once remains a cultural touchstone, winning an Oscar for Best Original Song, becoming the basis of a hit, Tony-winning Broadway musical, and perhaps most importantly, being referenced on The Simpsons. I love Once, and multiple viewings have not diluted the film’s sweetness. Carney followed up Once with Begin Again in 2013, which starred Keira Knightley and Mark Ruffalo. I found Begin Again to be disappointing in contrast to Once, as I found it too focused on the film’s added star-power and less on the emotions.
Carney’s latest film, Sing Street, seemingly returns him to his roots. Like Once, it takes place in his native Dublin and features a largely unknown cast. The premise finds Conor (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo), a young high-school aged boy who transfers to Synge Street, a strict Catholic school. After meeting a beautiful young model named Raphina (Lucy Boynton) who lives across the street from the school, Conor gets the idea to start up a band to impress her. Additionally, after finding several bandmates and collaborators to join him, he gives her the opportunity to star in one of their music videos. Influenced by everything from Duran Duran to The Cure, Conor christens his new band Sing Street. But, at home, difficulties remain as his father (Aiden Gillen, of Game of Thrones and The Wire fame) announces that he and Conor’s mom (Maria Doyle Kennedy) are separating, and his older brother Brendan (Jack Reynor) laments his lack of success in an Ireland that is suffering economically. At the same time, Conor gets on the wrong side of the school’s headmaster, Brother Baxter (Don Wycherley). Conor fights to keep Raphina in his life, keep Brother Baxter out of his life, and to maintain artistic control of his band and his music during the end-of-the-year concert at the school.
Sing Street, for lack of a better phrase, is simply adorable. It is heavily seeped in nostalgia for the 80s, and may have you longing for the days when Prince and Hall & Oates ruled the airways way after you leave the theater. It is such a celebration of 80s music that its enthusiasm is infectious. I found myself with a big dumb grin, tapping my foot and humming along to several scenes, particularly a fantasy sequence where Conor stages his perfect video for one of his band’s songs, entitled “Drive It Like You Stole It.” The song itself is phenomenal (in fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if it got a nomination for Best Original Song at next year’s Oscars), but the exuberant joy of the scene itself can’t help but put you in a happy mood.
In addition to being about the great music of a certain era, Sing Street is also about teenage bravado and the lengths one will go through for their first love. Walsh-Peelo as Conor and Boynton as Raphina have chemistry for sure, but it’s how they handle teenage awkwardness that really makes their relationship relatable and easily indefinable.
The cast is great, particularly Jack Reynor in a supporting turn as Conor’s out-of-work, out-of-luck, but nonetheless supportive big brother. If I could fault the movie for anything, Conor and Raphina make a decision at the end of the movie that doesn’t seem very feasible or realistic. It seemed too much of a “fairy-tale ending” for a movie that seemed to only want to explore romance as a reason to motivate the creation of music, and strikes me as a little too sugary-sweet and saccharine for my personal tastes. There’s also a plot-hole about how quickly Conor seems to able to pick up guitar-playing skills. Still, these seem like small flaws considering how great the rest of the movie is. If you like this director and his previous work, if you love 80s music, or you’re just looking for a sweet movie about a young boy trying to impress a girl, Sing Street is probably as good as you can get in theaters right now.