REVIEW: Sing Street [2016]

Score: 8/10 | ★ ★ ★

Rating: PG-13 | Runtime: 106 minutes | Release Date: March 17th, 2016 (Ireland)
Studio: The Weinstein Company
Director(s): John Carney
Writer(s): John Carney

“Happy sad”

Writer/director John Carney emotionally stripped ex-The Frames bandmate Glen Hansard bare in his 2007 feature film Once and now he does it to himself. The hiccup that was an attempt to recreate lightning in a bottle despite the conscious addition of polish and star appeal with Begin Again is thankfully a distant memory because the musical dramatist has again struck gold by sticking to his roots, his home, and his heart. A semi-autobiographical tale about a young boy’s life being upturned in a way that pushes him towards music for solace, Sing Street is a perfect coming-of-age story that contains effective humor and fearless authenticity while embracing individuality in the face of adversity during a decade known for its eccentricity and artistic excess: the 80s.

While Carney’s days as a touring bassist ended in the early 1990s, his experience growing up in the 80s obviously impacted his artistic evolution with musical inspiration from the likes of Duran Duran, The Cure, Hall & Oates, and Joe Jackson—all included here to wonderful effect. His surrogate is Conor (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo), a fifteen-year old private school student who’s endured the beginning of the demise of his parents’ marriage for what he believes has been far too long. He and sister Ann (Kelly Thornton), however, don’t know the half of it when compared with their much older brother Brendan (Jack Reynor). It’s Brendan who learned to insulate himself from Robert (Aidan Gillen) and Penny’s (Maria Doyle Kennedy) quarrels, diving into rock-n-roll for both aural and emotional escape.

This is the lesson he strives to pass down to young Conor as the boy transfers to a public school due to hard economic times. It’s reading, writing, and arithmetic during the day, vinyl soundscapes at night. This crash course in contemporary “futurist” music is a direct result of his decision to start a band—itself a necessity after lying to the beautiful, mysterious sixteen-year old girl seen standing on a stoop across the way (Lucy Boynton‘s Raphina). He told her he already had a group, one recruiting an actress for their latest music video. So he scrambles with the help of Darren (Ben Carolan) to pull together a rag-tag bunch of misfits while the school bully (Ian Kenny‘s Barry) and principal (Don Wycherley‘s Brother Baxter) threaten him to conform.

Ngig (Percy Chamburuka) is enlisted because he’s black, Larry (Conor Hamilton) and Garry (Karl Rice) respond to a bulletin board flyer, and Eamon (Mark McKenna) proves a crucial member being the son of a cover band musician who can play every single instrument strewn about his Dad’s living room. Sing Street (a play on their school Synge Street CBS) is formed, songs are written, videos are filmed, and love’s complexity weaves its way in to fuel each rallying cry lyric. The love of Conor’s parents is failing, the purpose in Brendan’s life is extinguishing, and the pain and fear Raphina’s adolescence has wrought is coming to a head just as the idea of achieving one’s dreams seems simultaneously impossible and the only option for happiness anyone actually possesses.

Carney delivers an inside look at what it means to become an artist. The film is first and foremost about identity, but there are great instances of process too. Whether it’s listening to records, dissecting bass lines and guitar riffs to manufacture their own, or understanding the onslaught of music videos as a medium to enhance the music beyond live performance, Conor literally goes through a metamorphosis onscreen. Initially quiet, proper, and studious, the realization that those things are no longer enough hits him like a ton of bricks. The strength to stand tall always existed, but a turn-the-other-cheek philosophy soon transforms into an emboldened assertiveness able to diffuse potential conflict. His confidence grows with each new appropriated aesthetic—layers of skin shed to find his true self.

Some moments can appear too on-the-nose with fortune cookie philosophy shared by Raphina’s damaged but perceptive love interest, Brendan’s seemingly unwavering support as sage master to Conor’s willing apprentice, and the constant reminder that we are all alone in this world no matter what we believe (the preoccupied parents completely unaware of or able to assist in anything their children are doing), but they work in the context of what Sing Street stands to accomplish. Conor is quite literally a sponge like we all are at his age, soaking in everything that happens around him to see what sticks and what doesn’t. Some infer upon his personality, some his lyrics, but without each high and low he could never discover his aspirations to be more.

This doesn’t mean becoming a star either despite the band’s memorably catchy songs “Drive It Like You Stole It”, “The Riddle of the Model”, and “Up”. It’s about becoming whole—unearthing a love for one’s self that exterior forces work hard to prevent. For Conor it’s realizing what “be a man” means beyond sexist stereotypes and an inherent fear of not being masculine enough. To him it’s not going halfway; confidently going for what he wants and being happy in defeat knowing he didn’t shy away from the challenge. For Raphina it’s accepting the belief that she’s worth finding happiness without strings attached. She’s been surrounded by so much tragedy and disappointment that she doesn’t realize life is lived in the present, not the past.

And with every life lesson comes a comedic lilt to bring a smile to your face no matter the hardship or broken heart revealed in the aftermath. Reynor is a highlight in his matter-of-fact sarcasm hiding absolute honesty; Carolan’s tiny frame talking big at every turn is hilarious; and Chamburuka, Rice, and Hamilton’s awkward sense of cool a delight. There’s irreverence from McKenna and his rabbits, projected pain as childish villainy from Kenny, and a sweet innocence in Walsh-Peelo’s confident sense of humor. His Conor comfortably shoulders the load with poise and Boynton’s Raphina delivers relevant, conflict-infused melodrama without a false note. They’re very much like Carney’s Once protagonists in this way. More important than mere physical attraction, they ultimately prove to be muse for the other’s soul.

[1] The cast of SING STREET. Courtesy of The Weinstein Company
[2] FERDIA WALSH-PEELO and LUCY BOYNTON star in SING STREET. Courtesy of The Weinstein Company
[3] FERDIA WALSH-PEELO and MARK MCKENNA star in SING STREET. Courtesy of The Weinstein Company

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