At this point, no one who watches John Carney’s movies is likely to mistake his feelings about the transformative power of music. His debut film, the raw and aching Once, features Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová as two lonely people making music together to express the emotions they can’t voice to each other. Carney’s more visibly commercial 2013 film Begin Again was initially called Can A Song Save Your Life?, and the plot is one long series of affirmations around that question. Its protagonists, played by Keira Knightley and Mark Ruffalo, are both dealing with broken romances and failed careers, and they find the satisfaction and success they’ve been missing by teaming up to record an album. And now, Carney’s new musical Sing Street finds new ways to play the same chords in new combinations. Once again, Carney rhapsodizes about the redemptive power of music. And once again, his story turns into an extended concert, where the characters’ performances take over the film, to joyous and giddy effect.
First-time actor Ferdia Walsh-Peelo stars as Conor, an aimless 15-year-old Dubliner whose parents (Maria Doyle Kennedy and Game Of Thrones’ Aidan Gillen) are in the middle of a souring marriage and an imminent breakup. His older brother Brendan (Jack Reynor), who lives at home, has dropped out of college to become a shaggy, bitter stoner. Their sister Ann (Kelly Thornton) is a nervous academic who seems to see her studies as her only chance to escape her miserable family. It’s 1985, and Ireland is in a deep economic slump. Young people face such grim employment prospects that they’re fleeing in droves for London or America, looking for a hint of a happy future. It’s a depressing time for the country, and for Conor’s family in specific.
Things look particularly bad for Conor when his parents announce that they can no longer afford his private Jesuit education, and pack him off to a rowdy, poorly run Catholic school called Synge Street CBS. The local bully (Ian Kenny) greets him like an exciting new toy, and so does smug, authoritarian headmaster Father Baxter (Don Wycherley), who seems to be trying out for the brutal teacher role in Pink Floyd—The Wall, a few years too late. But then Conor sees a vision of 1980s beauty: 16-year-old Raphina (Lucy Boynton), whose stonewashed jeans, bangy bouffant hair, and dramatic makeup make her look like she just walked out of a Duran Duran video. Conor impulsively invites her to come appear in a video for his own band, and when she doesn’t immediately say no, he runs off to form that band.
Just like that, his world has a center. Brendan lights up at the prospect of educating his kid brother about A-Ha, Depeche Mode, and The Cure, and their bonding over vinyl provides some of the film’s warmest moments. The family dynamic certainly gets more narrative attention than Conor’s bandmates, who prove surprisingly willing to dress up in velvet frocks and experiment with glam makeup, but never develop personalities as distinctive as their sartorial choices. Even Raphina doesn’t entirely rise above the "lust object in need of rescue" template. That’s a disappointing new wrinkle for Carney, who gave the women in Once and Begin Again enough talent and agency to put them on the same footing with their male counterparts. But apart from a few heartbreaking moments of revelation, Raphina is a surface-level character whose talents focus on makeup, hairstyling, and enigmatic model expressions. The spotlight remains firmly on Conor, and his knack for crafting catchy pop tunes.
Before long, he’s shooting that video he promised Raphina — and Sing Street has become an extended music video itself, with Conor at the center. Virtually everything in the film happens with a light, suspicious ease that makes Sing Street feel like even more of a slick and weightless fantasy than Begin Again before it. Carney channeled his own teenage years into the story, but the way everything falls into place for his onscreen avatar makes this feel more like autobiographical fantasy than memoir. Sing Street — a play on the name of Conor’s awful school, which becomes the name of his band — sometimes resembles an episode of Ryan Murphy’s Glee, with Conor as a straight, Irish take on bullied junior fashion plate Kurt Hummel. The film has the same big emotional ups and downs as Glee, the same candy-colored crispness, and the same rapid reversals. And certainly it has the same attitude toward music, which stands in for any repressed emotion or longing, and works miracles in bringing people together and fixing any problem.
But Sing Street replaces Glee’s archness and inconsistency with a winning sincerity, both about the value of creation and about family bonds. There’s a lot of giddy humor to the film, particularly as Conor experiments with his identity and his wardrobe every time he latches onto a new band. But there’s an element of tragedy as well, mostly through his older brother Brendan, whose deferred ambition gives the film a painful, needy tinge. Conor’s one failing as a character is that he’s so obviously and convincingly a 15-year-old boy, and he fumbles awkwardly with the fresh new idea that other people have feelings, too. When Raphina and Brendan separately share painful confidences with him, he flees or sulks. His self-absorption isn’t appealing, even though it’s understandable coming from someone so unfinished and in transition.
Conor matures rapidly throughout the film, though, as his art gives him courage, the means of self-expression, and even a little room for empathy. "I’m a futurist!" he tells anyone who asks what kind of music he writes. He’s not entirely sure what kind of music that description suggests, but the more he says it, the clearer it becomes that he’s just trying to reconcile himself with his new optimism, and the feeling that for the first time, he actually has a future.
Like Carney’s other films, Sing Street gets a lot of its power from immaculately crafted performance scenes, where Conor’s songs (co-written by Carney and pop maestro Gary Clark) develop from scrawled lines of banal poetry into earworm-worthy, suspiciously polished tunes. But while Sing Street wouldn’t entirely work if original compositions like "The Riddle Of The Model" and "Drive It Like You Stole It" couldn’t stand alongside the '80s pop hits that fill out the soundtrack, Carney’s emphasis is more on performance than craftsmanship. His camera lovingly covers the actual act of bringing music to life, and he makes being in the middle of a band look like the most revitalizing and rewarding place on Earth. The increasingly lengthy musical sequences devour the movie’s third act, to the point where they overstretch into a series of videos that substitute music for momentum. But given the film’s recklessly romantic final destination, the long musical sequences fit in naturally. This is a heady wish-fulfillment fantasy that gets more outsized and outlandish with every scene, and once the music starts, it feels natural enough that no one wants to turn back to the colorless reality of 1985 Dublin.
Sing Street has drawn plenty of comparison to Alan Parker’s 1991 feature The Commitments, about a different group of working-class Dubliners who form a band. But it just as closely resembles Lukas Moodysson’s winning 2013 Swedish drama We Are the Best!, about a trio of 13-year-old Stockholm girls who become a punk group largely to irritate some older boys, and then find that the genre’s built-in explosive rebellion expresses something they were missing in their lives. The two films share a puppyish energy that comes from the directors working with untried, non-professional actors, who tend to rush their lines, and deliver them with more force than nuance. But Sing Street and We Are The Best! also share a simple joy in the freedom of artistic creation. And they both wryly follow, with adult eyes, the glee of a bunch of children discovering a new purpose in life. Carney isn’t subtle about his beliefs at this point, but nothing about what he’s communicating here would benefit from subtlety. Sing Street is the kind of film that enthusiastically bellows its feelings to the sky, with full band accompaniment and a triumphant guitar crescendo to drive it all home.