Sing Street is a love song to eighties music and youth culture that blends gritty realism with the romance of rocknroll in its most potent adolescent phase. Irresistible.
Disclaimer: Firstly, I love musicals (don’t blame me, it’s an era-of-childhood thing). Secondly, I was a rock music fanatic. I mean ridiculously OCD fanatical. The fever struck in first year high school (see A Portrait of the Iconoclast as a Young Twat) and progressed to active creative involvement. Bitter-sweet, but what a blast! Once you’ve tasted the excitement of bringing original songs to life with a band it’s hard to let go of the dream that goes with it. When you do, you still don’t. It’s like it infuses itself into your DNA. The point of my disclaimers is in danger of being lost, so time to cut right to it. My response to any flick depicting young misfits forming a rock band – in fact, to any rocknroll movie of any sort – goes only two ways, according to whether my bullshit antennae are twitching: love or hate. So factor that in.
In the case of Sing Street, it’s love. Irish writer-director Jon Carney gets rocknroll as only someone who has dreamt the dream can. His debut feature, Once, rang true and personal in its portrayal of young misfits who find themselves and each other through music, and so does Sing Street.
In light of my opening disclaimer, I should qualify something here. If you’re not a fan of musicals, relax. Sing Street is not a musical per se. That is, its characters don’t advance the narrative by spontaneously breaking into song in the midst of the dramatic action a la Oklahoma or West Side Story or Grease or whatever. The live-performance music that features (co-written by Carney, as in Once) is embedded naturally in the story, occurring in songwriting sessions, band rehearsals, video shoots and at a memorable debut gig.
The setting is suburban Dublin of the mid-eighties. 14 year-old Conor “Cosmo” Lalor (played with confidence by charismatic first-timer, Ferdia Walsh-Peelo) is going through a rough patch. He’s being bullied at his new Christian Brothers school, has run foul of a sadistic Brother, and his parents’ marriage is in a death spiral. The only light in the gloom of his adolescence is his adored older brother Brendan (Jack Reynor – also terrific), a stoner who with righteous authority lays down the law on music and youth culture, playing him records (CDs had not yet taken over) and educating him on what’s cool. Which, of course, is the New Romantic/new wave scene headed by Duran Duran, Spandau Ballet, The Cure, post-punk Jam et al. And, of course, the new art form that MTV mainstreamed into the 80s, melding short film with music – the Rock Video!
Enter the gorgeous Raphina (Lucy Boynton), an older woman (all of 17) and aspiring model. In attempting to chat her up, Cosmo invites her to feature in his band’s video shoot in the weekend. She assents. Big problem – he doesn’t have a band!
He buttonholes some musically inclined classmates, recruits a “cameraman” – a little red-headed guy (Ben Carolan) whose only qualification is possessing a cheap-n-nasty portable movie camera – and voila! Sing Street is born. And joy of joys, Raphina rolls up to the weekend shoot.
The narrative progresses along fairly predictable lines from this point, but that doesn’t matter at all. It’s the how that counts here, not the what. And here’s where Carney excels, bringing his life experience to the film and its characters, and balancing the romance of the band with some gritty realities of adolescent life and the angst that goes with them.
The band rehearsal scenes, and particularly the collaborative magic and excitement of the song creation process, are brilliantly authentic in feel. As the songs spring to life and the band starts to gel, the self-belief of the guys grows before your eyes.
The progression of the band mirrors the search for identity of its members. One week they’re Duran Duran lookalikes, with guyliner, big hair and greatcoats, the next they’re aping The Cure, fingernails painted black etc. The Brothers at school aren’t impressed and that’s just dandy. What’s rocknroll without authorities to buck against?
Sing Street do some emphatic bucking at their debut gig, a school social styled along the lines of an American prom night. I won’t spoil the fun by elaborating, but be assured, it’s funny and exhilarating, part Cosmo’s fantasy and part really happenin’.
Outside the sanctuary of the band, Cosmo experiences acute growing pains. He is in the throes of first love, his prospects with Raphina swinging violently to and fro between hopeless and promising (the bipolar course of the relationship is astutely and sensitively managed by the director and his two fine young performers). Compounding Cosmo’s bewilderment at the changes and emotions buffeting him, his parents formally separate, and he begins to see brother Brendan as a person who is hurting and troubled by under-achievement, rather than the infallible mentor he has idolised. This triggers a realisation that he must strike out and make a life for himself, with or without Raphina, with or without the band.
Ironically, as these tough realities steer its protagonist towards adult independence, the film leaves realism behind in favour of a ludicrously implausible happy ending. But by that stage I was won over and didn’t mind at all.
My bet is that you’ll be the same, especially if you’re a Gen Xer or into 80s music. Indeed, the entire movie could be seen as a love song to the 80s. But its appeal is cross-generational. As a Boomer who wasn’t into the New Romantic bands, or 80s music generally (c’mon, after first-wave punk?), I say this: whatever your age or musical preferences, if you’ve got a romantic bone in your body you’ll find Sing Street irresistible.
Movie website: http://www.filmnation.com/sing-street/
A Portrait of the Iconoclast as a Young Twat
We’re So Pretty, Oh So Pretty…Vacant
Song of a Baker
Please Sir, Can We Have Some More?
A Tribute to Ron Asheton
The Geeks and other Perth Punk Stories
I Remember You: A Joey Ramone Eulogy
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