Backstreet musical golden-boy John Carney returns to the streets of Dublin after an ill-considered and wholly unsuccessful detour to New York City. Should we welcome his latest film with swaying arms and clicking fingers or turn a deaf ear?
If Once was an example of a Little Movie That Could, then Carney’s follow-up, Begin Again, was a cautionary tale on the corrupting power of money and A-list movie stars. Keira Knightley and Adam Levine (of Maroon 5) certainly boosted the film’s international profile, but it’s not as if the follow-up to the Oscar-winning Once needed that.
This time, the Weinstein Company and the many other parties funding Sing Street seem to have left Carney to his own devices, and the resulting movie is the better for it. Big names are traded in for a cast of soon-to-be-knowns and some established homegrown talent. I’m happy to say that Sing Street is the back-to-basics comeback Carney needed.
The film opens with Conor Lawlor (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo) having to transfer from his well-to-do private school to a Christian Brothers School on Synge Street due to mounting financial pressures on his family. Conor has trouble adjusting to the rough-and-tumble environment of his new school, butting heads with a prickly headmaster and the resident school bully.
A mysterious girl who spends her time loitering across the road from the school fascinates Conor. Her name is Raphina and she’s a would-be model. In an attempt to impress her, Conor claims to be in a band. He then has to make good on his promise and form a group with a bunch of misfits.
Together, the band, Sing Street, negotiate the highs and lows of life and love while producing impressive but hokey music videos and some catchy tunes. It’s all very charming.
The beating heart of Sing Street is that of a teenage boy. What’s important to Conor is important to Sing Street as a whole.
It’s a film where the stakes are high for the teenage protagonist, but appear quaint and charming to the viewer. We’re able to laugh at Conor as much as we’re able to cry with him.
This has a lot to do with Carney’s treatment of Conor’s subjectivity; he’s a brave kid, a dreamer who fancies himself as something of a hero, and we can get behind his naïve bravado.
In the foyer, after the film, a couple of the other critics remarked that Lucy Boynton’s Raphina wasn’t up to much as a character. I’m inclined to give Carney the benefit of the doubt here; that is to say, I think that Raphina’s lack of character is deliberate.
She is, initially, a mystery because Conor wills her to be just that. The band’s first composition, “The Secret of the Model”, a Duran Duran-inspired song, reveals his attitude toward Raphina: she is sophisticated, unknowable, “she holds the key to the missing code”.
Later in the picture, Raphina reveals more of herself as a past tragedy surfaces, furthering Conor’s ambition to save this mysterious girl and ride off into the sunset with her. He wishes to make real a premise from one of the band’s music videos.
However, Raphina lets Conor down when she goes back to her older, mustached, car-owning boyfriend and appears to disappear from Conor’s life for good. Here, we see the reality of Raphina’s character running up against Conor’s fantasy; there’s not much to her character because her character, or at least, Conor’s impression of her character can’t live up to the reality of Raphina.
She is revealed to not be as tough as she seems, her worldliness stemming from a childhood tragedy rather than some innate coolness. These revelations are made clear to us, but briefly: we get some dialogue here and there, and a wordless shot/reverse-shot sequence set to some music, and then we’re brought back from the reality of this world to that of the film.
The tragedy of Raphina’s character, and the lack of exploration of this tragedy extends to other darker elements within the film. Sing Street’s kitchen-sink realist elements are always at the corner of the frame.
Institutional, domestic and sexual abuse play some part in the film’s narrative, but they take a backseat to the pageantry of the musical numbers and teen drama. Thankfully, this approach works well within the generic confines of the musical comedy, where fantasy supersedes reality in favour of big, brash and colourful expressions of emotions.
The formula pays off. Sing Street is as charming as it is impactful. I was moved by the performances and impressed by the original score, which has winks and nods to popular artists of the 1980s while feeling just unprofessional enough to be believable.
And though they may be reluctant to admit it, some of those with reservations about the film were wiping tears from their eyes during the closing number. Sing Street is moving, smart and full of heart. It’s a return to form for Carney and a must-see.
Sing Street directed by John Carney opens at cinemas nationwide from 17 March.