John Carney’s “Sing Street” is a marvelous throwback to a time when kids defined their personality and their fashion by the music they loved, when music videos first showed us what cool looked like, and when a dream of being famous meant picking up a guitar and joining a band. Music has the power to shape the person we become, and the music and culture of “Sing Street” have imbued this coming of age story with so much life, energy and spirit.
Along with “Once” and “Begin Again,” Carney is responsible for some of the best movie musicals of the new millennium. “Sing Street’s” approach to a campy fun ‘80s jukebox musical isn’t half-baked covers of old one-hit wonders but a celebration of the era as seen from a very distinctive place.
Set in Dublin in 1985, “Sing Street” is the story of Cosmo (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo), the youngest kid of a poor, working class family on the brink of divorce. In order to save money, his parents pull him out of school and send him to a Catholic school for boys. The rigid dress code and beatings from the priests don’t subdue the cheekily hard-scrabble boys culture of the Irish. No matter how puny, every teenager smokes, picks fights and acts tough.
Guiding Cosmo through this tough transition is his older brother Brendan (Jack Reynor), a whip-smart college dropout and stoner who knows people, the world, and best of all, good music. Carney drew from his own life experience watching music videos in ‘80s Ireland to show just how big an influence those images on “Top of the Pops” had on him and Cosmo by extension. He even ironically updates the classic scene of the square dad dismissive of the new band as actual music. “They’re not exactly The Beatles, are they?”
Cosmo gets so smitten by these music videos, he decides he has to be in one himself. He works up the courage to approach a mysterious girl named Raphina (Lucy Boynton) by asking her to star in it. He’ll work out the fact that he doesn’t have a band or know how to play anything later.
“I’m a futurist,” Cosmo says to his bandmate. He doesn’t really know any bands, any particular sounds, and when he’s quizzed about Duran Duran, he quotes his brother’s insight as his own, even if he nearly confuses John Taylor for James Taylor. All he knows is he wants to make music that’s new and sounds cool. “Sing Street” encourages a sense of authenticity and coming of age through artificiality. The band’s music videos and their sound are ripped directly from the LPs of the day, riffing on The Cure, Hall & Oates and A-Ha alternatively. Cosmo even changes his hair style and fashion sense accordingly. Today he’ll look like Robert Smith, tomorrow it’s Ziggy Stardust.
But the pastiche is exactly the point. The film’s original songs, all of them written by Carney and Gary Clark, sound like the work of young kids finding themselves and their talent, and that doesn’t make the songs any less fantastic. Carney combines the love of music and the tongue-in-cheek adolescent comedy in a way that’s never cynical and often profound. “Rock and Roll is a risk. You dare to be ridiculed,” Brendan says. “You can never do anything by half. You have to dive in,” Raphina says. “Sing Street” believes both of these philosophies and is unabashedly lovely and winning.
Perhaps most impressive however is how Carney has evolved as a filmmaker. “Once” is a magnificent movie that by design looks like homemade dirt. It’s handheld and scrappy like the street performers it follows. With “Begin Again” Carney moved into more polished Hollywood territory, but the film’s cornball quality kept it from being truly great. “Sing Street” combines the best of both films. The film’s pacing crackles with a fast moving, thick Dublin dialect and more ‘80s musical nods than you can count, and the jokey music videos look amateurish in the best way. But Carney also stages a wonderful dream sequence set at a ‘50s prom. The colors and characters just emerge out of the woodwork in what is one of the more magical scenes of the year.
In one scene, Raphina tells Cosmo he needs to be “happy sad,” to not be so miserable about feeling down. And in the perfect note, Brendan plays him The Cure’s “In Between Days.” “Sing Street” knows music and it knows Dublin, but it also knows how a musical can be a story of great emotion and uplift. When Cosmo decides it’s time to embrace being a little more happy sad, he says, “Accept it, get on with it, and make some great art.” Carney has certainly done that with one of the best movies of the year.