Whilst John Carney might has proven himself to be a bit of a jerk with his recent attack on Keira Knightley, there is no doubt that the Irish filmmaker has an uncanny ability to capture the romantic magic of music. Announcing himself with his 2007 Dublin-set drama Once, which picked up an Academy Award for the original song Falling Slowly, Carney followed up with the underappreciated Begin Again in which Knightley plays a singer-songwriter who teams with a disillusioned record company boss to create a series of recordings that incorporate the sounds of daily life in bustling New York. With Sing Street, Carney returns to Dublin and again places music at the forefront of a narrative that plays out as a whimsical, witty romantic drama set in the 1980’s and drenched in the very best, and worst, of the music of the era. In addition to the music, the other standout from this is the performance of the largely unknown cast of young performers, led by 17-year-old Ferdia Walsh-Peelo in his first feature performance.
Like so many young people, Walsh-Peelo’s Conor relies on music as an escape from the miseries that otherwise pervade his life; an escape from the tensions of his parents’ collapsing marriage and from the torment he endures at the Christian Brothers school to which he has recently been transferred. However, it is when Conor meets the mercurial Raphina (Lucy Boynton) that he finds himself in a pickle, having invited her to star in a music video for his band; a band that doesn’t exist. In fact, whilst Conor loves listening to music and gorging on the emerging art form of music videos, his musical skills are rudimentary at best, a failing that his older brother Brendan (Jack Reynor) doesn’t see as a problem because, after all, “the Sex Pistols couldn’t play either”. Having rounded up a motley bunch of neighbourhood misfits, Sing Street is formed and Conor, who finds himself a dab hand at song writing, sets about penning some original songs, primarily to impress the alluring Raphina. As his home life becomes even more splintered, Conor seeks solace in the company of his band mates and the girl with whom he is smitten.
It goes without saying that the road to romance does not run smoothly as Conor has to overcome a series of setbacks to win the hand of the damsel whose distress is masked by a persona that exudes confidence. All the characters that orbit Conor are clichés and none more so than Barry (Ian Kenny), a skin-headed thug who torments Conor at school as a result of the abuse he cops from his own father. However, despite the poor character development for many of the players, it is impossible not to get swept up in this wonderfully uplifting story about love, friendship and the power of music. The ‘80’s soundtrack – Duran Duran, The Cure, The Clash, Joe Jackson and many more – is fabulous and the original tracks written primarily by Carney, Gary Clark and Glen Hansard, and performed with considerable aplomb by Peelo, are terrific. The rollicking Drive It Like You Stole It is way better than so much of the schlock that currently populates commercial radio airwaves.
Whilst Walsh-Peelo delivers a remarkably composed performance as the love struck teen for whom music presents as a potential pathway out of the mire and towards something much more meaningful, it is Boynton who really stands out as a young woman who is delusional and damaged yet utterly delightful in the way she embraces Conor and his clueless cohorts. Raynor also impresses as Jack, a 20-something stoner who, despite not having a job or any real prospects, has somehow amassed a killer record collection. Sure, Sing Street is rough around the edges at times with some scenes looking as cheaply staged as the music videos the boys make, along with some chronological liberties taken with the music referenced throughout, but it is such a feel-good frolic that these shortcomings are easily overlooked.