Showing no concern for being pigeon-holed, writer-director John Carney follows up his previous two folk/pop musical comedy-dramas Once and Begin Again with, wait for it…a new comedy-drama centred around aspiring pop musicians! Where does he get his ideas? What’s a little more surprising is that he’s returned to his native Ireland for a lower budgeted independent effort rather than working in the US again with any big Hollywood stars as he did last time, but here that proves to his advantage.
The other primary aspect helping to separate out his latest, Sing Street, is that it’s a period piece set in the mid-eighties. Likely drawing from Carney’s own experiences, it follows Dublin teenager Conor (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo) who’s moved from his private school to a notorious Catholic state school due to his constantly arguing parent’s recent financial troubles.
The film possesses an uneasy tone that seems to be partway between stereotypical British “kitchen-sink realism” and the playful, silly world of eighties teen movies best exemplified by John Hughes’ output (though less fittingly, there are several on screen mentions of Back to the Future being our protagonist’s ideal). This blend works for the most part however, the difficulties facing Conor’s family ring completely true, and his treatment at the hands of the vicious headmaster Br. Baxter don’t feel out-of-place with the optimistic, up-beat musical/rom-com main plot strands. Only a standard school bully subplot ends up seeming like a bit of a waste of time, as it’s the kind of thing seen countless times before.
The main thrust of the story is a fairly unremarkable teenage romantic comedy set-up. Conor sees a girl across the street he likes the look of called Raphina (Lucy Boynton) who says she wants to be a model. Thinking on his feet, he says he’s in a band and they need a model for their music video. Now Conor needs to actually set up a band to make his lie reality and impress Ralphina.
Sing Street doesn’t seek to mock Conor’s musical ambitions though, once he amusingly assembles a bunch of local fellow musicians (alongside a “manager” friend) they’re revealed to actually be fairly, almost improbably talented. The songs are primarily credited to veteran songwriter Gary Clark (of Danny Wilson) and Carney himself. Their greatest strength is probably that they all feel like they could genuinely have been eighties pop hits themselves; there’s nothing ironic or insincere about them. A lot of them do sound a bit derivative of other bands of the period, but that’s relevant to the plot itself (Conor changes his ‘image’ frequently whenever he encounters a new band he likes, moving from impersonating Hall& Oates to The Cure to Spandau Ballet and so on). The film’s main performance in its third act is an irresistibly endearing musical sequence, even if it lacks the power of the one it intentionally resembles.
Sing Street’s other stand-out sequence, is something altogether different. The romantic plot is, let’s be honest, fairly generic and lacks any particular spark, but there’s another relationship Conor has that’s vital to this movie, that with his older brother Brendan. He’s played wonderfully by Jack Reynor, doing some serious career rehabilitation after his atrocious performance in Transformers 4, and acts as something of a mentor figure for Conor, constantly providing him with new LPs and musical opinions. It’s not until near the end when this previously comedic side character has a frank discussion with Conor about his failures and their respective statuses in the family that packs a real emotional weight I hadn’t seen coming at all. It’s enough to make me think that this movie could have just dumped the romantic angle and concentrated purely on Conor’s family and it might well have improved.
The only other mild issue with Sing Street is that the other members of Conor’s band feel hugely underserved, in particular co-writer and multi-instrumentalist Eamon (Mark McKenna), who could be described as the real talent of the band, gets side-lined while Conor takes all the glory.
Leaning more away from its everyday side, the film builds to a conclusion that is totally preposterous if you think about it realistically, but in the moment feels passionately inspiring. A cap to this film’s undoubted charms concerning the power of music and following your ambitions, which even the presence of Adam Levine’s voice can’t sully.