A boy growing up in Dublin during the 1980s escapes his strained family life by starting a band and moving to London.
This film is about a teenage boy, Conor (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo), who grows up in Dublin in the 1980s. That’s exactly where and when I grew up and during the exact same time-frame. Conor, or Cosmo as his friends call him, is in his early-to-mid teens and loves to play music, I was in my early teens and loved to make movies. There were so many personal similarities throughout the film, being awkward around girls, the pain of parents separating, finding an outlet (Conor’s was music, mine was movies) to vent frustrations, that at times, I had to think about director John Carney, and wonder if he was a friend I grew up with back in the day who changed his name and decided to make a film, utilizing some moments from my own life in his magical tale.
And that is exactly what “Sing Street” is. It is a story about dreaming, looking to the future and not letting anything, or any one, get in your way. Dublin in 1985 was pretty rough and at that time, there were thousands of people leaving Ireland every year to find work abroad and that is a constant theme throughout the movie, it serves as a backdrop to say that no matter how difficult times may be, with family and friends around you, everything will be fine.
Conor lives with his mother Penny (Maria Doyle Kennedy), father Robert (Aidan Gillen), his younger sister Ann (Kelly Thornton) and older brother Brendan (Jack Reynor). With his parents constantly arguing and fighting because of financial woes, in order to cut costs, they inform Conor that he will no longer be attending his expensive secondary school, instead, he will be moving to the Synge Street CBS (Christian Brothers School), an educational institution known for their fearsome discipline and use of corporal punishment. Conor quickly blends in, after some bullying from a tough skinhead called Barry (Ian Kenny) and one day, he notices a beautiful young girl, Raphina (Lucy Boynton), standing across the street. When his friend Darren (Ben Carolan), tells him that she never speaks to any of the boys from the school, it doesn’t stop Conor from approaching her. Awkward at first, they gradually begin to converse and when she tells him that she is a model, he concocts a story, telling her that he is in a band and that they are going to be making a music video and that she should appear in it. She agrees and then he leaves, informing his friend that they need to form a band. And fast!
While this appears to be the core of the story, it actually goes much deeper. Conor and his friends forming a band, actually gives each of them something to look forward to, and inspires hope in them, in a time when the unemployment rate in the country was at 17% and many were packing up and moving overseas. Their music is an outlet that allows them to take their minds off the pressures of school, parental anguish, and the possibility of a very bleak future.
As the band tries to find their musical identity, so much of the movie’s fun comes from Conor’s older brother Brendan, a good musician in his own right, trying to guide them down the musical road of life. One moment, DURAN DURAN is the hottest band in the world so Conor and his bandmates imitate their flashy looks, complete with androgynous makeup. A week later, THE CURE is the next big deal, so naturally, their appearance changes to the signature goth look and ghoulish facade that has always been associated with them.
But underneath all the music, argumentative parents, and school woes, “Sing Street” is a love story. While Conor struggles with his own issues, in getting to know Raphina, he realizes that things could always be worse. With her father dead, her mother living in a home suffering from schizophrenia, and her living in a boarding school for girls, the two quickly bond but with Raphina constantly dreaming of moving to London to pursue a career in modeling, Conor must make a decision: follow the girl of his dreams overseas or stay in Ireland.
While this prospect faced many back then, here, it is the catalyst that drives the film. It is the elephant in the room, always present, sometimes in conversation, sometimes in the background but director John Carney never lets you forget that for many, it wasn’t a choice, it was a necessity. And while Conor is still young enough to finish school and go on to college before making such a life-altering decision, his perspective expands, a result of Raphina and her own dreams and the two decide to take the biggest adventure of their lives and go to London.
While “Sing Street” is a combination of drama, comedy, romance, and musical, its biggest attribute is its ability to charm the audience with pure magic. While playing at the end of school year party, Conor’s parents have already separated and Raphina has disappeared but as Conor and his band begin playing a 1950s pop song, the scene suddenly transforms to the hall of an American high school, and for the duration of the song, his parents appear, hand-in-hand, staring lovingly at each other, Brendan shows up on a motor cycle and beats up the school bully, and Raphina finally arrives, sporting a beautiful ball dress and for a few minutes, the world is exactly as it should be, at least for Conor; full of happiness, love, and joy. When the song ends and we realize that nobody actually came to see him perform, it literally tugs at your heartstrings.
As an Irishman but more importantly, a Dubliner, I can safely say, with all confidence, that director John Carney has made the best Irish movie to come out of Ireland in years. The film is comparable to another great Irish movie that was released back in 1991, Alan Parker’s “The Commitments,” a film about a group of young musicians who start up a band and the ups and downs that are associated with such an undertaking but the musical aspects that both movies share is where the comparisons end. “Sing Street” is a vibrant and boisterous extravaganza, filled with performances of great conviction and aplomb. The cast, young and old, are mature beyond their years and the film dares you to believe in magic again. Many of us grow up and deal with the day-to-day activities affiliated with real life and we leave that part of us behind but “Sing Street” reaches out to us, specifically that part that always hoped, and dreamed, and looked to the stars, believing that anything was possible. For that Mr. Carney, I thank you.
In theaters April 22nd
Check out Irish Film Critic for more exciting news, reviews, and giveaways.