[This is a re-post of my review from the 2016 Sundance Film Festival. Sing Street opens today in limited release.]
While everyone knows that music unites us and moves us, it takes skill to not only show how it accomplishes these feats, but also find a narrative in this sentiment. Writer-director John Carney has done it three times, and in his latest film, Sing Street, he turns his eye to a coming of age dramedy that may have its fair share of familiar notes, but unlike other films in the genre, Carney knows how to play them beautifully. The movie is funny, sweet, touching, and absolutely sweeps up the audience in 80s pop classics as well as original numbers that you’ll want to play on repeat. It’s a movie that will pull at your heart when it’s not putting a big, goofy grin on your face as we watch a simple story of a teenage kid trying to impress a girl.
Conor (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo) is a teenager living in Dublin in 1985, and he’s forced to go to Catholic school when his bickering parents can no longer afford to send him to private school. Conor quickly encounters bullies and strict, nonsensical rules like “only black shoes,” but he forgets all of that when he sees the beautiful Raphina (Lucy Boynton) across the street. She tells him she’s a model, and eager to impress her, he says he’d like her to be in the video for his band. When she agrees, he quickly scrambles to put together a group, write songs, and get a better handle on music of the time, which he does with the help of his wizened, wise-ass brother Brendan (Jack Reynor). The more Conor tries to win over Raphina’s heart, the more he learns not only about music, but that she’s more than just an enigmatic model.
Although Sing Street starts from a simple premise, Carney makes it surprisingly catchy like a song built from only three chords. The movie also acknowledges the speed and proficiency Conor is able to put a successful band together, and while their first song, “The Riddle of the Model”, is appropriately mediocre, they quickly become incredibly talented. And yet it doesn’t matter because we’re so swept up in not only the songs, but also the characters playing them. Carney relishes the details of writing down the words to a song, reading them to a friend to get feedback, sounding it out, and letting it come to fruition.
That specificity elevates Sing Street from a standard coming of age story even if it’s playing by the familiar notes. Carney also helps his movie by fleshing out Conor, Raphina, and even Brendan beyond simple archetypes. Conor and Brendan’s home life is falling apart because of their parents’ constant fighting, Raphina is clearly trying to put up a strong front to cover up a depressing past, but rather than just being a prize for Conor, she brings something to the group with her makeup skills (that being said, the film could still do a bit more build up her character). Even Brendan, who could have easily been reduced to a comic relief character who doles out wisdom, gets a great monologue where he shows another side to his character (and Reynor absolutely knocks it out of the park; do not judge him based on Transformers: Age of Extinction).
But where Sing Street excels is where Once also took off—the music. Speaking with Adam Chitwood on the bus after seeing the movie, he made the good point that one of the reasons Carney’s Begin Again failed to catch on is that it lacks memorable songs. Sing Street doesn’t have that problem, and it’s wonderful watching these songs on screen and the group try to emulate bands like A-ha, Duran Duran, and more leading up to a show-stopping number where Conor imagines not only a perfect music video for his song, but a perfect life where his parents get along, his bullies are thwarted, and he gets the girl.
Sing Street is an absolute crowdpleaser, and while there are some false notes along the way (especially a scene involving physical abuse and a priest), they’re not enough to drown out the joyous experience of watching these kids make beautiful music together. It’s a movie that will send your heart soaring, get you cheering, and humming “Drive It Like You Stole It” as you exit the theater.