With Once and Begin Again, writer/director/producer John Carney explored with unblinking sincerity the romance and redemptive power of pop music, and with his seventh feature film, Sing Street, he does it again with undeniably joyous results. The film, said to be partially autobiographical, once again focuses on a boy and a girl and the way that art draws them together despite the odds, while also focusing on how music can literally save someone’s life. If you remember, Can a Song Save Your Life? was the original title of Begin Again, and just as a song did in fact lift the heart of that movie’s Mark Ruffalo, this time it’s a young Irish high school student named Conor (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo) who finds his salvation through chords and melodies.
Things aren’t going so well for Conor when we first meet him: it’s the mid-1980s, the Irish economy is in the dumpster and his parents (Aiden Gillen and Maria Doyle Kennedy) are not only on the verge of splitting up but are taking him out of his pricey private school to make ends meet. He ends up in a tougher public school and immediately becomes the target of both a vicious bully and the equally nasty principal — but also lays eyes on Raphina (Lucy Boynton), a slightly older girl who lives across the street and draws Conor into her orbit like steel filings to a magnet.
For all his seeming shyness and softly rounded looks, Conor does in fact have cojones of steel: he brazenly asks Raphina to appear in a video that his band is filming, knowing full well that he doesn’t even have a band, let alone a camera. When she agrees, he begins to assemble the rest, and soon his ragtag assemblage — christened Sing Street after the location of their school (Synge Street) — is rehearsing their hearts out and storyboarding the video.
And guess what? The little bastards aren’t half bad. Conor is a gifted singer and lyricist, and in guitarist/keyboardist Eamon (Mark McKenna) he finds a natural songwriting partner. Mentored in the music he should be exploring by his older brother Brendan (Jack Reynor) — who once harbored his own musical dreams — Conor and his bandmates take a tour through the various musical genres of the ‘80s as well as its shifting pop fashions, all the while becoming more and more confident as a musical unit. But can they take their music to the next level and, more importantly, can Conor win Raphina’s heart?
Sing Street positively drips with earnestness — Carney never holds up his ambitious little group of rockers for ridicule, frosted hair, eyeliner and all — and it’s that sweetness that gives the film its undeniable charm. The band is made up of unknown actors who all acquit themselves well, while Transformers: Age of Extinction’s Reynor and Game of Thrones vet Gillen provide more experienced support (Reynor is especially good in what could have been a hackneyed older sibling role, instead letting his troubled character display genuine affection for his little brother). And Walsh-Peelo shows genuine chemistry with Boynton, whose character hides her own problems but easily makes us believe in her abilities to set a young man’s heart racing.
Then of course there is the music, with most of Sing Street’s “originals” heard either as Conor is penning them or at the band’s first gig (a high school dance, of course). Carney wrote the tunes and each one of them — including “Up,” “A Beautiful Sea” and the anthemic “Drive It Like You Stole It” — shimmer with heartache, abandon and honesty, acquitting themselves quite well next to the staples on the soundtrack like “Maneater,” “Inbetween Days,” “Steppin’ Out” and “Town Called Malice.”
If you want to accuse Carney of anything, it may be that he’s too frothy. The stakes never feel truly momentous in Sing Street and the film’s last act — while filled with undeniably delicious imagery such as a video Conor sees in his head while the band is playing — kind of wraps the story up a little too neatly. At the same time, it’s light, does provide a satisfying arc to Conor’s story and doesn’t have much time for gritty realism, which would probably be jarring anyway after the previous charming 90 minutes.
“Charming” is a perfect word to describe Sing Street. It’s a movie that creates so much goodwill that only the most hard-hearted viewer could possibly sit through it without once cracking a smile or getting the urge to pump the old fist in the air for the kids. At the very least you’ll be tapping your foot throughout. It’s a movie that slides smoothly inside your heart and mind and pushes all the right pleasure buttons…just like a great song.
Sing Street is out in theaters today (Friday, April 15).