Film Review: Sing Street

A 1980s Dublin high-schooler forms a band to impress his aspiring model crush and reinvents himself in this optimistic and rewarding musical by 'Once' writer-director John Carney, with stellar original tracks and a lovable cast.
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A hopeful musical with a shoestring budget—featuring an innocent romance springing up on the gritty streets of Dublin—made it all the way to the glamorous stage of the Academy Awards almost a decade ago. John Carney’s Sundance-originating and technically (very) low-key Once became an independent sensation then, and has been enjoying an extended shelf life ever since (thanks to its transition to the Broadway stage), as well as a secure legacy in the catalog of musical cinema. The follow-up acts of its renowned writer-director—which include the sweet yet syrupy musical Begin Again starring Mark Ruffalo and Keira Knightley—never quite hit all the right high notes Once did, however. The playfully titled, high-spirited period musical/coming-of-age drama Sing Street, another impending hit with a Sundance launch pad, is here to reclaim Carney’s glory and to disarm even the most cynical of skeptics. This is the type of film that has the power to make its audience overjoyed with optimism: Don’t be surprised if you find yourself keeping rhythm alongside the original tracks (co-written by Carney and Gary Clark) and tapping your feet with a big smile on your face.

The Dublin-set, Commitments-like Sing Street takes place in 1985 with a hinted backdrop of economic hardship, sensed in the air and seen on the sleepy streets. Among the victims of the tough times are the Lawlors, a family not only in financial distress but also in marriage crisis between parents Robert (Aiden Gillen) and Penny (Maria Doyle Kennedy). Their belt-tightening decision to place their younger son Conor (later on, Cosmo, played by notable newcomer Ferdia Walsh-Peelo) into a public school comes with life-changing consequences for the youngster. In order to impress his mysterious crush, the aspiring model Raphina (the charismatic Lucy Boynton), Cosmo decides to put together a band with no experience and little knowledge of music. His new circle proves to be a resourceful bunch, thankfully: Jack-of-all-trades entrepreneur Darren (Ben Carolan) spearheads the formation of the band and announces himself as the manager. Eamon (Mark McKenna) chips in with his skills in multiple instruments (and his apartment where the band practices). Ngig (Percy Chamburuka) takes on the keyboard. And they also recruit drum and bass players by advertising on flyer boards.

Then something atypical happens in this so far pretty straightforward “boy meets girl and forms a band” narrative. The band actually pulls it off—initially playing covers of the likes of Duran Duran and The Cure, but slowly growing into their own styles and voices, and shooting ’80s style, comically rough-around-the-edges music-videos that become the joyous heart and soul of the story. Outfits get an outrageous makeover worthy of MTV’s heyday: loudly flamboyant and visibly the product of beg-and-borrow from older family members. (Props to the film’s costume designer Tiziana Corvisleri for keeping the evolving wardrobes believable while having a good time with possibilities of the era.) Raphina assumes the role of their grungy make-up artist and frequent subject. With growing confidence (as well as talent), the boy band “Sing Street” (a teasing nod to their school’s name, Synge Street) starts writing their own original music with much encouragement from Cosmo’s brother Brendan (Jack Reynor), churning one hummable track after the next. The initial song “Riddle of the Model” and one of the closing numbers, “Drive It Like You Stole It.” especially command attention.

As he did with Once and Begin Again, Carney never loses sight of the purpose of music: he uses tracks—as well as the pastiche music-videos the kids shoot—as necessary ingredients of the narrative and aptly prevents them from becoming distractions or interruptions. Alan MacDonald’s production design also keeps things believable, with convincingly polished visuals imbued with an amateur spirit. Above all, Carney makes sure character development doesn’t get crushed under the magic of music: He takes time in building a beautiful brotherly bond between Cosmo and Brendan, and allows Raphina to pursue her own backstory and agency. In a lesser film, she would become a disposable and expendable character, present only until Cosmo achieves his dreams. Fortunately, Carney has other ideas.

Anyone who’s courted idealistic, romantic dreams at a young age will find it impossible to watch Sing Street with indifference. Rest assured, Carney will make it worth your while with a thoroughly entertaining film, memorable soundtrack, and a rewarding, wish-fulfilling finale, attesting that young dreams are nothing to look down upon but are worth chasing.

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