The very fact that the Irish director John Carney is trying to revive the movie musical is laudable – I am a fan of the genre and I lament its disappearance. The film “Sing Street,” Carney’s third effort in this direction, is based on his own memories from his boyhood in recession-ridden Dublin of the 1980s. It was preceded by “Once” (2007), which was a distinctive work, and “Begin Again” (2013), which tended toward the banal. The new movie again bears the minor heft that characterized the first in this series, though it lacks the earlier picture’s distinctiveness. In fact, “Sing Street” might have been considered a negligible work, but is saved from that fate by its pervasive air of outgoing likeability. Carney’s film doesn’t take itself too seriously, especially in regard to its musical dimension. Its essence recalls the musical starring Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland, in which a group of youngsters tried to produce a successful musical, the result hovering on the edge of fantasy. This is what lends “Sing Street” its charm, even if its story is largely predictable and not always credible.
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The year is 1985, the place is Dublin and the protagonist is 15-year-old Conor (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo), whose family is in trouble. Relations between his father (Aidan Gillen) and his mother (Maria Doyle Kennedy) are strained to the point that they are considering a separation –divorce being impossible in Catholic Ireland. The family is also in dire straits financially. This forces them to transfer Conor from his fee-paying Jesuit school to a free state-run school, under the grim management of the Catholic Church. Fortunately for the family, Brendan (Jack Reynor), Conor’s older brother, has dropped out of university, so they are spared the need to pay his tuition fees.
Naturally, Conor is harassed in the new school, particularly by the unavoidable bully of every such story (Ian Kenny), and by the institution’s principal (Don Wycherley). The latter projects instant perversion and treats Conor harshly (such as by forcing him to come to school in black shoes, as is the custom, rather than brown ones, refusing to accept the fact that Conor’s family can’t afford to buy him a new pair of shoes). Conor accepts it all with equanimity; he might look delicate, but he has a strong character.
A song for love
The plot trigger comes when Conor notices Raphina (Lucy Boynton), a beautiful girl slightly older than he is, who always stands on the steps of the house across the way from the entrance to the school, an unlit cigarette dangling from the corner of her mouth. Even though Conor is told that Raphina is off limits to the school’s students, he approaches her and gets a response by telling her he has a band in which he is the soloist. He adds that he wants her to appear in a clip the band is planning to shoot (this was the period in which video clips burst into popular culture in all their intensity). The only problem is that Conor has neither a band nor a song for which a clip can be made.
Conor plays the guitar and, thanks mainly to his brother, is well acquainted with the music of the period – which is heard on the movie’s soundtrack. He recruits a few school friends, all of them seemingly nerds like him. He writes a first song and shoots a highly amateur clip. Raphina, who dreams of going to London to be a model, is aware of the clip’s low quality, but is ready to overlook it. The group of musicians become a band and call themselves “Sing Street” (a play on the name of the street on which the school is located). Their performances become increasingly professional – the original songs were written by Carney together with Gary Clark, formerly the soloist of the Scottish band Danny Wilson – and even if that rapid professionalism and the quality of the songs Conor writes make the viewer wonder a bit, it all becomes part of the somewhat mythic dimension that permeates the film – as with many musicals.
We also see Conor’s visual transformation. He comes to school in makeup and poses as pop and rock stars of the period. (The best line in the movie is spoken by the principal, Brother Baxter, who as he cruelly wipes the makeup from Conor’s face, snorts, “No more Ziggy Stardust!”) At the same time, Conor’s love for Raphina develops apace. She is from a broken family and has an older boyfriend, with whom her relations go through various crises.
It would all be quite banal were it not that the actors who play Conor, his friends in the band and Raphina are so sympathetic and their characters so humanly and warmly drawn. Carney dedicates the film to brothers as such, and in fact one of its most captivating characters, despite his seemingly secondary role, is Conor’s brother, who offers him advice and helps him out when the romantic crisis into which Conor is plunged reaches its climax.
The songs, whether of the period in which the movie is set or originals, lend the film its inner momentum. There is also a witty and fetching musical number that takes place in Conor’s imagination, when he is afraid the band will fail in its performance at the end-of-semester party. All the people in his life appear in this number, including his conflicted parents, who dance together, and Brother Baxter, who does an extremely impressive backward somersault. “Sing Street” is not an especially important movie that will long be remembered, but its virtues make it an enjoyable viewing experience.