SING STREET Review

Director John Carney (Once, Begin Again) is forty-four years old. He was born in 1972 making him thirteen or so in 1985. His latest film, Sing Street, about a boy growing up in Dublin during the 1980's who escapes his strained family life by starting a band feels remarkably autobiographical. Not knowing if this was the case or not before seeing the film (doing a little research reveals it in fact is) I could feel this sense of closeness, of passion for not only the time period and the music that is so evident it's contagious, but in the feelings these characters are actually feeling. In other words, it is beyond evident that Carney, who also wrote the screenplay, experienced much of what is on screen here himself. To accompany these feelings Carney is attempting to resurrect from his childhood is the music of that decade as well. With each of these moments we have a song or a lyric that elicits the grander emotion, the nostalgia-tinted adoration for the promise that youth holds and it is in these elements that Sing Street transcends being more than a simple coming of age story. Sure, on the surface the film could be described as a typical coming of age tale that features a boy trying to impress a girl by playing music and there are of course elements of those types of stories present here, but Carney utilizes such tropes in a fashion that they come across as pure magic. Through the eyes of this child of the eighties we are witness to not only his first love and the experience of him learning, picking up information and ideologies from those around him, informing the person he will become, but we also catch glimpses of the weight of adulthood, the realization that our ambitions can be greater than our inherent talent, and that the best parts of life can be those we leave more to mystery than those we come to know too well. Sing Street is a layered and complex film about adolescence and yet you never feel the weight of such themes because you're too busy being wrapped up in the infectious and heart-warming music the characters create from these circumstances.

Conor (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo) and Eamon (Mark McKenna) collaborate on their first original material.
Sing Street follows Conor (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo), a 14-year-old who, when we first meet him, is turning the arguments of his fighting parents (Aidan Gillen and Maria Doyle Kennedy) into song lyrics. His parents are mostly fighting over the state of their finances as Ireland in the eighties wasn't exactly in a prosperous state. As the film makes evident early, most residents with any dreams or ambitions were fleeing to London in hopes of finding a more stable income and a higher quality of life altogether. The fact Conor's father hasn't received a single commission all year and his mother's hours have been reduced considerably lead to them deciding to transfer their youngest son to a new school on the less posh side of town. Conor doesn't quite fit in at his new Catholic school, from his mentality down to his brown shoes, but luckily finds a friend in Darren (Ben Carolan) as fast as he does an enemy in Barry (Ian Kenny). It is when a hip older girl, Raphina (Lucy Boynton), catches his eye, that he has an impromptu moment and asks her to star in his band’s music video-a band that doesn't exactly exist. And so, Conor turns to his brother Brendan (Jack Reynor) who knows more about music and culture and life in general than anyone else he knows and who helps him discover new bands, scavenge his vinyl collection, and generally motivate him to write his own music rather than to take the easy way out and become little more than a cover band. With the help of Barry, who eventually ascends to the role of band manager, Conor scraps together a group of outcasts from school that consist of musical protégé Eamon (Mark McKenna) who can play any instrument known to man, keyboardist Ngig (Percy Chamburuka) who the boys feel will add a little "flavor" to their look, and brothers Larry (Conor Hamilton) and Garry (Karl Rice) who fill in the drums and bass. Calling themselves Sing Street after their school, the Christian Brothers institution located on Synge Street in Dublin, the band quickly becomes more than just a means to win the girl's heart, but more it begins to inform and help Conor establish his own identity.

It is in the way Carney and his film display the developing identity of its protagonist that makes Sing Street more than just a movie about music that just so happens to feature your favorite bands from the eighties. There is sincere pain present, there is the sad reality that most involved will go on to lead underwhelming lives, and that these will easily be the best days of those lives. It is through this sadness, this near bleakness that happiness and hope are born though, and so, as most stories of people who must earn what they achieve-this life is a double edged sword. In his screenplay, Carney is able to walk the line of that sword so well that the balance between the lighter, more euphoric moments and the dramatic, ultimately devastating realizations never falls too far to one side. In fact, it is this balance that allows the audience to feel as if they've been on a journey of genuine human emotion by the time the credits begin to roll.

What emotions are we exploring precisely, though? Given Sing Street is only an hour and forty-five minute feature how much could it possibly pack in? It's difficult to quantify as it could easily be interpreted a handful of different ways by a handful of different people depending on the scene, but the first to appeal to me was the idea of putting one's self out there. Reynor's Brendan tells Conor soon after he starts his band that rock and roll is a risk. That to write and perform music that sprung from your soul is to risk being ridiculed by those who don't connect or understand your interpretation of your own feelings. Of course, this applies to the realm of being a songwriter and performer, but on a smaller scale it is that of putting yourself out there for a single person or even the persons you consider closest in your life. There's a fascinating saying that goes, "the idea that none of us can truly know the lives of our friends or family, not even ourselves-is a thought we'd rather be shot in the arm with than face head on." It's a thought that can be as terrifying as the quote makes it out to be, but even scarier is the idea of putting something on the table for these people to react to with no idea as to what might come of it. Conor doesn't so much consider this warning as he does take his brother's advice and run with, but that is largely because of his age and the lack of idea of just how much impact his actions could bear on his future and the way people perceive him. At the stage Conor begins Sing Street he is free enough of inhibition and fed up enough with his situation that he doesn't care about such consequences and thankfully for us, the kid has real potential.

It's always about the girl and in this case it's all about Raphina (Lucy Boynton) and how Conor can impress her.
In the most breathtaking scene of the entire film set to the Hall & Oates inspired "Drive It Like You Stole It," we see Conor go into something of a dream state that delivers on his ambition for the song's music video. His fighting parents, his disparaged brother, his broken dream girl-they all show up in this rapturous state that so strongly contradicts the state of their actual psyches it is both extremely heartening and yet depressing as Carney immediately follows up the sequence with the juxtaposition of all involved in their poor reality. This marrying of the lives and the music those lives inspire through one of the active members within those lives is what lends to making Sing Street a rich and well-rounded movie experience rather than just the fun, feel-good time its trailers advertise. Speaking of music, Carney also handles this progression well. Making not only each of his main characters complete and complicated, but also marking the progress and growth of Conor and Eamon as songwriters, musicians, and showmen. Their first attempt at original music comes in the form of a song titled, "The Riddle of the Model," a very Duran Duran-inspired piece in which the band also begins to replicate the fashion of the band as well. The song isn't really that great, but it's cool enough and it shows the right type of promise. As Brendan introduces Conor to varying styles of music and Conor experiences varying types of emotion with Raphina both the music and the lyrics begin to make a natural series of steps towards more quality sounding pieces. The songs more or less become homages to every major new wave artist that came out of the decade from The Cure to Spandau Ballet to The Jam and only pushing this idea further is the decision to display Sing Street's amateur music videos through the technology of the time lending the nostalgia factor of the film a strictly pleasant tone as if being seen through rose-tinted glasses.

Carney is a director who seems to live for scribbles in a notebook, conversations over slight strums, and scenes where ideas are spit-balled back and forth culminating in a decision that signals achievement and thank God, because one too many movies about music these days forget to show the real reasons their subjects end up in this industry that made them legends. Carney leaves it up to us to decide what comes of our heroes, but that is beside the point as it's the journey we witness these characters taking that matters most. In seeing Walsh-Peelo somewhat grow before our eyes and in his first feature film role the actor conveys the necessary innocence and naiveté of Conor that, as he takes in the influences and advice of those around him, we truly feel we're seeing become who he might one day fully encapsulate. Giving Conor and Eamon a Lennon/McCartney vibe emphasizes the creative process aspect of the film and McKenna utilizes his sheepish exterior to cash in on some of the biggest, most random laughs. Reynor is the real stand-out here though, as he gets some of the best material in terms of perspective and missed opportunity. Brendan is a guy who is a pro at avoiding real conflict or change despite having all the knowledge in the world. He soaks up everything he can, expands his pool of knowledge until it overflows, but he ultimately feels too afraid to do anything with any of it. He blames this hesitance on the usual suspects and attributes his shortcomings to the reality of dreams never matching the ambition, but it is Reynor's sarcastic and bitter approach to the role that really provides the subtext as Brendan is clearly trying to conceal the damage through snarky quips. The rest of the cast, including Boynton and especially Carolan, bring us into this time and place not only in terms of the eighties as a decade, but in terms of the time in each of our lives where it felt like more life laid before us than it did behind us and it all seemed possible.

Brendan (Jack Reynor) and Conor possess a close relationship that informs each of their lives greatly.
There is part of me that knows I love this film for the personal connection I've created with it. My mother grew up in England (which I know isn't Ireland, but close enough), I heard about Top of the Pops my entire childhood, I ate Mars bars until my heart's content, and she was a teenager of the early eighties where much of the music that influenced this movie informed much of those memories. In many ways, I felt like I was taking a trip through what it might have been like to be her at a younger age than even I am now. There is also the factor of once being in a band with my own brothers and being willing to create our own music and put it out there for the world to listen to, enjoy, and criticize. The relationship between Conor and Brendan is key to the heart of Sing Street and it spoke volumes to many a personal experiences I've had in my own life. I'm not saying I connected with this film more than others will be able to because I've had these experiences, but for these reasons specifically I feel a deeper relationship to this film than with anything else I've seen recently. I can't help but to understand everything it seems to be going for and all that it attempts to capture. All of this is to preface that Sing Street is my favorite movie of the year so far and despite it only being April I feel it will be hard for any other film to hit me on the range of emotional levels that this did. It's layered, it's fantastic, it's fun, and it's just downright good.