Director: John Carney
Cast: Ferdia Walsh-Peelo, Aidan Gillen, Maria Doyle Kennedy
Watch online in the UK: Curzon Home Cinema / iTunes / Amazon Instant Video / TalkTalk TV / Rakuten TV / Google Play
Every now and then, a film comes along that is so uplifting, so inspiring, so sincerely, unabashedly positive that it makes you smile with every inch of your being. Sing Street is one of those films.
The movie, written and directed by John Carney, is the latest in a time-honoured cinematic tradition of teenagers forming bands – because if there’s one thing guaranteed to charm your socks off, it’s a child with a musical instrument. Not a musical instrument that squeaks out of tune, or disturbs the neighbours. A musical instrument that lets them express themselves, rally friends around them, and escape their daily drudgery three minutes at a time.
And so, like The Commitments, We Are the Best! and The Beat Beneath My Feet before it, Sing Street sees Conor (Walsh-Peelo), a 15-year-old boy in a strict Christian Brothers school in Dublin, decide to start a group. What kind of music do they play? He doesn’t know. What he does know is that they’re a futurist band – and it’s that notion of looking forwards, not looking to the past, that gets other pupils putting down their books and picking up guitars, keyboards and drums. Or, in the case of one, their fists.
Inevitably, there’s a girl involved. We watch Conor write tunes to woo the enigmatic Raphina (Lucy Boynton), from the orphanage over the road. She says she’s a model, so he asks her to star in their music video. The self-penned track in question? The Riddle of the Model. (Ah, youth.)
Ferdia Walsh-Peelo is fantastic as Conor, immediately likeable and boasting an open face that moves between naive puppy love and world-weary rejection like he was born to wallow on an 80s music video. He’s surrounded by an equally sensational ensemble of young actors, from Ben Carolan’s red-headed manager (“Call me.” “You haven’t got a number.” “Just call around in general.”) to Mark McKenna’s rabbit-loving Eamon, who provides the musical brain to go with Conor’s heart.
The chemistry between them all is excellent, not least because Carney thrums a bass note of melancholy underneath even their catchiest interactions – whether it’s the threat of being bullied at school, the looming spectre of Conor’s parents’ divorce or Raphina hope to move to London, leaving the poverty-stricken Dublin (and Conor) behind. The band’s VHS recordings, which recall the charming Son of Rambow, are likewise full of cheap MTV-inspired outfits (a brilliant piece of costume design) and dingy alleys, not to mention bad camera angles.
“Your problem is that you’re not happy being sad,” Raphina tells her doting devotee – and it’s that balance of syrup and grime that director John Carney has mastered on-screen several times. The secret, of course, lies in his use of music. Co-writing the songs with Gary Clark, their tracks are as infectiously mainstream as 80s pop gets – and just derivative enough to be convincing. But it’s more than that: the director is king of capturing the magic of making music, whether it’s young boys with a cassette player or Glen Hansard with a vacuum cleaner.
Carney doesn’t just use songs to bring characters’ emotions to life; he uses characters to bring to life the songs. The performance of them, the way a musician moves centre stage when they hit a rousing chorus, or the way they share eye contact with their cohorts and smile when a chord change goes smoothly; Carney gets it, every single crotchet. The best moments in the film aren’t Raphina and Conor taking a leap of faith, but Eamon and Conor quietly scribbling lyrics, or Conor’s older brother, Brendan (a superb Jack Reynor), mentoring him with vinyls of The Cure and Duran Duran.
Brendan, we learn, coulda been a musical contender, but now sits at home smoking pot and wondering what happened. While the generous film gives us time to feel his sadness, though, it also uses that melancholy as a springboard for the happiness of his younger brother, whose dreams are still bursting out of an amp in the school hall. Carney is clever enough not to crush them, letting Conor and his friends sound as professional and polished as anyone who’s ever listened to themselves singing in the shower. “You don’t need to know how to play – you need to learn how not to play. That’s rock and roll,” advises Brendan. And so, as our kids enrol in their own school of rock, Sing Street allows us to share their rush of creativity. The result is a joyous ode to expression, escapism and wish-fulfilment. What else, after all, is music for?