Writer/director John Carney was born in Dublin, Ireland in 1972. He was educated at a free-state Christian Brothers school during the eighties called Synge Street CBS. He then went on to be the bassist for a band called The Frames and directed several of their videos.
In his new comedy Sing Street, Carney has turned inward for inspiration; it’s all about a teenage boy in Dublin during the eighties attending Synge Street CBS who wants to impress a girl, so he forms a band just so that he can invite her to be in his music videos. It may not be exactly autobiographical, but it certainly seems that way.
It’s Dublin, 1985, and the Lalor family is in financial trouble. Marriage issues not withstanding, mum and dad are forced to make changes. One of those changes means that fifteen year-old Conor (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo) has to leave his expensive school and transfer to the rough-around-the edges nearby free state-school, Synge Street CBS. It’s there, outside of school grounds, where he meets the older Raphina (Lucy Boynton) and he’s immediately smitten. It’s the one thing that young boys fear when it finally comes, but fully embrace in the same way the valiant willingly rode into the valley of death – puppy love.
Having watched BBC’s Top of the Pops on TV the other night and found inspiration in the Duran Duran music video, Rio, Conor voices the first thing that springs to mind when talking to Raphina: would she be interested in appearing in his band’s next music video? After all, she does dress and bear a resemblance to one of the girls from Bananarama; why wouldn’t he be attracted? Amused by the younger kid’s invitation, Raphina agrees, and then drives off with her older boyfriend while Genesis blasts on the car stereo. Undeterred by the obstacle of the girl he suddenly likes having a boyfriend, Conor knows what he has to do next; he has to learn how to sing, play an instrument and form a band; then comes the videos and finally the girl. It all fits.
Conor’s older brother, Brendan (Jack Reynor) knows about these things. Rather than sounding musically polished, the older brother tells the younger, “You have to learn how not to play, and that takes practice.” As for the girl of his younger brother’s dreams having a boyfriend, that was going to be no trouble. “No woman can truly love a man who listens to Phil Collins,” he advises.
Unlike director Carney’s previous musical outings, Once and Begin Again, Sing Street is lighter and funnier. Its setting may have the look and feel of a down-to-earth drama, but the emphasis is clearly on music and humor. Watching Conor and his Sing Street band progress as they drift from style to style in both music and fashion, depending on what TV music video they’ve just seen on Top of the Pops, is genuinely, laugh-out-loud funny and certainly relatable to those who view that particular decade of dubious tastes and fashions through a prism of youthful nostalgia.
Oddly, by giving the story a specific date, 1985, those who followed music of the time may question some of the musical choices and references. Duran Duran’s Rio had run its course earlier in 1982, so it’s doubtful that it would have appeared as a new chart entry on Top of the Pops in ’85. Spandau Ballet’s Gold was two years earlier in ’83, and M’s Pop Muzik was back further still in the late seventies and was never a part of the eighties’ musical landscape. Still, pinpointing irregularities in the film’s musical makeup spoils nothing. The overall sense to Sing Street is one of fun, lead by a game cast of mostly unknown young actors who truly capture the feel of what it was like to be at school while influenced by the fashions and pop-synth musical styles as heard and seen on both radio and TV. And what love-sick smitten boy didn’t go to peculiar lengths to impress the girl? When the school’s principle (Don Wycherley) aggressively wipes the blue makeup from around Conor’s eyes, a look inspired by Conor having just witnessed the new romantic movement of Spandau Ballet on TV, the man declares, “No more Ziggy Stardust!”
Particularly effective is the fantasy sequence where Conor, later renamed Cosmo by Raphina, imagines his band playing in a professionally shot, well-choreographed music video recreating the prom sequence from Back to the Future. All characters in Conor’s life – his brother and sister, his parents, the kids at school, and more importantly, Raphina – all turn up in fifties costumes as if extras on Zemeckis’ set while the band performs its eighties style, self-penned song on stage. It’s both funny and very well shot.
Without the dramatic weight of Once, which went on to be a successful West End and Broadway musical, or, to a lesser degree, the underrated Begin Again, Sing Street has the potential to fade from memory faster than it deserves, though out of the three, it’s easily the most entertaining.
MPAA Rating: PG-13 Length: 106 Minutes Overall Rating: 8 (out of 10)