A rare luxury in film reviewing is a decent amount of time to consider a movie. Sing Street, the new film from Once and Begin Again director John Carney, isn’t on the surface the kind of movie you think would need it. It’s an energetic, funny coming of age story, set in 1980s Ireland, and swarming with new and classic tunes of the era. It bursts onto the screen, gleefully entertains, and then disappears again. Surely that’s that: an instant hit, and no more than that.
Yet this small, delightful film has stuck firmly in my head for two months since I’ve seen it. And I think that’s proof that details, and a real sense of hand crafting, really matter.
The film opens with teenager Conor, played by newcomer Ferdia Walsh-Peelo, getting the news that he’s being taken out of his private school (delivered by his father, played by Aidan Gillen and his box of Game Of Thrones accents), and being sent to the local free state school. The one run by the church, with a stringent set of rules, and a canteen where 25p still gets you a chocolate bar. That’s 80s nostalgia right there for you.
We’re also introduced at this stage too to his older brother, Brendan, played exquisitely by Jack Reynor, who wryly sits at the family table seeing through the collapse of his parents’ marriage. At times, Brendan is as close as the film gets to a narrator, such is his economy in getting to the heart of what’s going on. Yet he evolves, as I’ll talk about shortly, into one of the film’s most memorable characters for other reasons.
Sing Street never shies away from darker themes (although there’s an argument it could touch on them just a little more), from the overbearing priest at the state school to the affair that breaks down a marriage. Yet this is, that notwithstanding, one of the best feel-good movies I’ve seen in years. It just happens to be one with lots of things that stick in the mind, and little moments that make it feel all the more real.
At heart, it’s Conor’s story, of how he forms a band to try and find himself, and to get the attention of the mysterious girl standing across the street from his new school, Raphina, played by Lucy Boynton. And this is thus where the 80s music backdrop comes in. From watching Duran Duran on Top Of The Pops, to composing songs – complete with background rabbits – and shooting amateur music videos, Conor morphs into Cosmo, and gradually finds his voice. Once he does, the film absolutely hits top gear. For just as he’s putting more and more make-up on his face as he finds his identity, the film conversely sees Raphina, as she comes more and more into Cosmo’s world, taking hers off as we find out about her. It’s a delicate touch in a film that’s got no shortage of them.
It’s also bursting with character. Whilst it’s the excellent Walsh-Peelo and Boynton who power the film (and you can’t help but root for the pair of them), Carney is careful to give added strokes to what would other be background characters. In his hands, the stereotypical school bully even has some welcome shades of grey applied.
But it’s Jack Treynor’s Brendon that also sticks. In a film dedicated to brothers, he’s the character who seemingly has missed his chance, and is keen – in a very big brotherly kind of way (not in the Orwell sense) for his younger sibling to learn from his pathfinding. Treynor is flat-out excellent too, and his character arc is just as compelling as Cosmo’s.
Perhaps less certainly, Carney gambles a little with his ending here, and the way he goes with it hasn’t been close to universally popular. But I felt – without spoiling it – that it reflected the hand-crafted, heartfelt idea behind a film that’s simply joyous. It’s clear I may not be in the majority there.
But still: Sing Street is a genuine, utter delight, and really something special. I’ve not even touched on the excellent soundtrack, or Carney’s undeniable knack for progressing character and story through songs that won’t leave your ears for weeks. Nor the knockout Back To The Future homage. The film is a treasure trove like that, bursting with treats, controlled rawness, and a distinct feel that Carney captures with considerable skill.
Give this man more money, and let him make more films.
Sing Street is in UK cinemas from Friday.
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