Today’s Cinema Adventure originally appeared in
Movie musicals are a rarity these days. Every so often a Broadway blockbuster will find its way to the big screen, but an original musical, with a new script and songs, comes along about as often as a light traffic day on the 405. The last one of any significance came nearly a decade ago in the form of Once, a bittersweet, tuneful romance from Irish writer-director John Carney that went on to be adapted into a Broadway show in its own right. Now Carney has returned to the genre with a new effort, the semi-autobiographical Sing Street.
Set in Dublin of the mid-eighties, it focuses on Connor (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo), a teenager whose middle-class family has fallen on hard times. No longer able to afford his private education, they send him to a public boys’ school where discipline is strict, teachers are indifferent, and bullies rule the schoolyard. It’s a bleak environment, but he finds a ray of light in the form of Ruphina (Lucy Boynton), an aloof girl who frequently stands on a stoop across the street. To impress her, he tells her he is in a rock band; her interest is piqued, and Connor starts recruiting schoolmates to make the lie a reality. What starts as an attempt to get a girlfriend soon develops into a journey of self-discovery- and, just maybe, a way out of the dead-end life for which he seems destined.
Sing Street, on the surface, seems like an implausible mix. Carney, evoking the gritty social realism that British cinema has been mastering since the “kitchen sink” dramas of the early sixties, places his story in an economically depressed urban landscape and populates it with characters who have more or less given up hope of anything better, yet he uses this grim setting as the backdrop for an escapist flight of rock-and-roll fancy which seems straight out of the Hollywood dream factory. It shouldn’t work- but it does.
It’s just this odd juxtaposition of moods, in fact, that gives his film its magic. Carney tempers the desperation with humor and grounds the giddiness with melancholy. He treats his characters with compassion- even when they serve as antagonists to our hero- and never allows the fantasy to lose its connection to the underlying reality. As for the romance (deftly played by the two young co-stars), instead of adolescent wish-fulfillment we are reminded, to paraphrase a line from the film, that to be in love is to be happy and sad at the same time. It’s this delicate balance of “happy/sad” that permeates Sing Street, and serves as the lynch pin that helps it maintain its own delicate balance, right up to the sublimely satisfying ending.
The cast -mostly comprised of unknowns- brings an infectious energy to the mix, performing with the kind of authenticity that makes you forget they are acting. Although the charismatic Walsh-Peelo definitely deserves singular praise for largely carrying the movie, he is equally matched by the lovely Boyle, and all of their young co-stars perform at the same level. Special mention should also go to Jack Reynor as Brendan, Connor’s older brother and unlikely mentor; he gives a heartbreakingly endearing performance which, in many ways, provides the emotional center of the movie.
Finally, there’s the music. Composed by Carney (with Gary Clarke and Adam Levine), a series of period-flavored songs brilliantly charts each new development in the fictional band’s style (as they progress though various phases of eighties pop), as well as Connor’s growing maturity. They work as integral parts of the story, but they also stand on their own merits- catchy, heartfelt, and imaginative, they make the band’s onscreen success all the more believable. These original tunes are the heart and soul of Sing Street, but a number of familiar eighties hits are sprinkled throughout as well, just for good measure.
It’s worth noting that the generation which lived through the era depicted will find that Carney’s film strikes a particularly resonant chord. The clothes, the hairstyles, the videos- all are skillfully and lovingly recreated here, and it gives the movie a decidedly nostalgic flavor. That doesn’t mean it won’t also feel fresh enough for younger audiences. Ultimately, what makes Sing Street so appealing is that, at its core, it’s about the promise of the future- no matter how hopeless the present may seem. That’s certainly a message that has a place in the world today, and it might just make even the most cynical of movie-goers walk out of the theater with a little more lightness in their step.