Who says the movie musical is dead? Irish writer-director Jon Carney scored a box-office smash with 2007’s Once (the song “Falling Slowly” won an Oscar) and earned raves for 2013’s Begin Again, which took an Oscar nod for “Lost Stars.” Carney knows music and how it seeps into our lives. Carney carved Sing Street out of his own life growing up in Dublin, circa 1985, and the result is tender, tough and totally irresistible. Carney is too hardnosed for easy sentiment. He never goes soft. He makes us aware of the necessity of reaching higher and the pain that comes with it. Call it a junior Commitments if you want, but Sing Street goes its own way.
In Carney’s Dublin, the sounds of Duran Duran, the Cure and Spandau Ballet fill the heads of teen misfits who yearn to form a band and make videos, though they know fuck-all about how to do either. Newcomer Ferdia Walsh-Peelo excels as Carney’s stand-in, Conor Lalor, a 14-year-old virgin who dreams of being a rock star for a time-honored reason — he wants to get laid. The object of his youthful lust is Raphina (a terrific Lucy Boynton), an older woman (she’s 17) eager to make it as a model in London. Things are not looking good for these two. But for Conor, who gets bullied relentlessly at a Catholic school run by the Christian brothers and whose financially-strapped parents (Aiden Gillen and Maria Doyle Kennedy) are separating, music is a lifeline, a way to find happiness in sadness. Talk about a universal theme.
So Conor forms his band, Sing Street, by teaming up with business-savvy Darren (Ben Carolan), keyboardist Ngig (Percy Chamburuka), the only black member of the group, and versatile instrumentalist and composer Eamon (the most excellent Mark McKenna), who knows how to put Conor’s lyrics to music. Conor’s stoner older brother, Brendan (an outstanding Jack Reynor), gives Conor an example of how to get started by showing him Duran Duran’s music video, “Rio,” and declaring it the perfect mix of sound and image. “What tyranny could stand up to that?” he asks Conor.
Indeed. The original songs that Carney wrote with Gary Clark, former frontman of the Scottish band Danny Wilson, potently capture the spirit of the time, especially “Drive It Like You Stole It,” which should find its way into the Oscar winner’s circle. The popularity of videos at the time gives Carney and director of photography Yaron Orbach a chance to turn the depressive gray of Dublin into the colorful swirl of Conor’s fantasies. When Conor gives Raphina a tape of the band’s first song, “The Riddle of the Model,” she offers to appear in the video and even do the makeup. And they’re off. So is the movie. Watching Conor grow in confidence as he tries on guyliner and identities that alternately suggest Robert Smith, Tony Hadley and Nick Rhodes, is a treat. There’s an knockout sequence in which Conor imagines his life as Back to the Future-inspired 1950’s American prom.
Too much? Sometimes. But Carney never loses sight of the simple story at the film’s core. One that he lived himself. Sing Street is the most romantic movie you’ll find anywhere these days, brimming over with music, fun and the thrill of first love. Reality intrudes, as it does in all of Carney’s films. But sadness also makes the joyous moments more poignant. What I’m saying is that Carney is an original, a filmmaker who sees the world like no one else. Sing Street, which knows how to entertain you, is his most personal film yet.